“La La Land”: A Modern Musical Masterpiece

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Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone dance the night away in La La Land, Damien Chazelle’s follow-up to Whiplash. (Source: Esquire)

Musicals have been extremely popular ever since the Great Depression leading to Hollywood’s Golden Age. They have the power to transport viewers to a light, whimsical world as a way to forget the harsh reality for awhile. The films starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, including Top Hat and Swing Time, had everyone smiling as the two stars danced as if they were weightless. After the Depression, more musical stars, such as Gene Kelly (Singin’ in the Rain, An American in Paris), Frank Sinatra (On the Town, High Society), Judy Garland (The Wizard of Oz, Meet Me in St. Louis, A Star is Born), danced and sang their ways to the top. With West Side Story, The Sound of Music, and Grease being some of the most popular musicals of the past century, only ten of them have ever taken home an Oscar for Best Picture. Most musicals of the 21st century–Across the Universe, High School Musical, and Mamma Mia!–are often harmless, but tend to be lousy and forgettable.

Enter Damien Chazelle. A 33-year-old Harvard graduate from Providence, Rhode Island, made his directorial debut with 2009’s Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench, the black-and-white indie film he made in college following a jazz trumpeter falling for a shy girl in modern-day Boston. Following the marvelously dark story of a drummer’s road to becoming the greatest in Whiplash (2014), he would eventually use the same concept of his first film about star-crossed lovers making ends meet in La La Land (2016), winner of 6 Oscars including Best Director for Chazelle (becoming the youngest person to win such an award). However, it lost to Moonlight for Best Picture after a shocking mix-up.

One of those rare musicals not based on a novel or a famous play, the movie is rich in originality while paying tribute to musicals of the past–from the French musical The Umbrellas of Cherbourg to the all-American classics mentioned above. Not only that, it stars two of the most gorgeous people working today: Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone.

As the late Roger Ebert once said in one of his reviews, “The first time seeing the movie, I focused on the foreground, and liked it. The second time I focused on the background, too, and loved it!”

That’s the case of me seeing La La Land five times in theaters (plus many more to come). I always catch what I missed from before. It gets better with each viewing.

Set in modern-day Los Angeles, Mia Dolan (Stone, who won an Oscar for her role) is an aspiring actress working at a cafe in the Warner Brothers lot. She attempts to earn a big break, despite the numerous failed auditions she goes to. One night, after attending a party with her roommates, she goes to a nightclub and sees pianist Sebastian Wilder (Gosling), who also has dreams of his own of opening his own jazz club (“I’m letting life hit me until it gets tired. Then I’ll hit back. It’s a classic rope-a-dope”). Eventually, they fall in love.

We see how their storylines unfold leading up to their first encounter at the jazz club, owned by the fiery Bill (J.K. Simmons, in a small yet effective role). Spotlights shine down on one another as Sebastian plays a beautiful piano piece that would make Frédéric Chopin blush.

Yes, Ryan Gosling is actually playing the piano here. Prior to filming, he would practice two hours each day for three months to learn the music by heart. He wouldn’t play any other song on the piano other than the songs Sebastian plays in the movie. One thing that’s impressive about Chazelle as a director is he never uses doubles or CGI for the actor whenever they are playing a musical instrument. There isn’t a single second where any of the hard work Gosling had to endure felt wasted.

Chazelle’s collaborator and college roommate Justin Hurwitz joins the likes of Leonard Bernstein and Irving Berlin providing a marvelous score and memorable music numbers. In a film rich in color, it pays homage to Los Angeles. Like the Oscar-winning song “City of Stars”, it’s a city filled with hopes, dreams, and disappointments. The opening music number, “Another Day of Sun”, resembles the hopes of success despite the many challenges that have yet to be faced. Set during a traffic jam on a busy highway consisting of one six-minute long take (one of many continuous, long shots in the movie), the dancers start getting out of their cars and break into song and dance, singing a chorus that goes, “Climb these hills, I’m reaching for the heights, and chasing all the lights that shine, and when they let you down, you’ll get up off the ground, ‘cause morning rolls around, and it’s another day of sun.”

In another beautifully-choreographed music number, “A Lovely Night”, we see the two lovebirds walking the Hollywood Hills on a gorgeous spring evening after a pool party (one of the funniest scenes in the movie is when Mia dances and lip-syncs to a cover of Flock of Seagulls’ “I Ran” after encountering Sebastian–no wonder why she dominated “Lip Sync Battle” on the Tonight Show back in 2014). While they confessed they don’t have a connection, they begin teasing with each other until they put on their tap shoes and pull off a dance routine reminiscent of Astaire and Rogers. It’s entirely difficult not to smile and giggle during these scenes when they are together.

Jazz might be a dead genre, but Hurwitz brings it to pure light. Sebastian introduces Mia to his world of the genre after Mia discusses how her love for classic movies made her want to pursue acting. He mentions jazz is not just for listening, it has to be felt. “It’s conflict and it’s compromise, and it’s new every night,” he says. “It’s brand new every night. It’s very, very exciting!”

When Seb’s old buddy, Keith (John Legend), offers him to be in his band, he reluctantly accepts to be a part of his company. However, it conflicts his relationship with Mia (more on that later). Seb is taken aback by the contemporary, electronic style of jazz while he prefers the old-fashioned style of jazz, like Louis Armstrong and Charlie Parker. “How are you going to be a revolutionary, if you’re such a traditionalist?” Keith asks him after rehearsal. “You hold onto the past, but jazz is about the future.” Another part of La La Land’s brilliance is the pure optimism these characters–especially Mia and Seb–have of going far and beyond, even though they get frustrated on how it might turn out at first.

La La Land contains the most realistic portrayal of love than any other romance film in recent memory. It also contains fantasy elements thrown into the mix, which is also a breath of fresh air. There are two spectacular sequences that contain no dialogue, and feel as if they are something out of a ballet. One is where Mia and Sebastian sneak into the Griffith Observatory planetarium after hours. They begin floating in the air and dance in the stars. It serves as a metaphor for their emotional connection with each other.

The other is the epilogue reminiscent to the “Rhapsody in Blue” sequence at the end of An American in Paris. It shows what would happen if Mia and Sebastian actually ended up together. They go through numerous luscious set pieces–all painted by hand, no less!–as if they have both stepped into a dream. With Linus Sandgren’s gorgeous cinematography, this movie is like a painting in motion!

After winning audience’s hearts in Crazy, Stupid, Love and Gangster Squad, Gosling and Stone are dynamite as the two lovers. While they wear gorgeous clothes (Gosling in a variety of suits, and Stone in a variety of dresses), their romance is filled with so much charm and humor. Not only can they dance, they can also sing well. No one can play a better dynamic duo than these two!

While Moonlight might have deserved its award for Best Picture of 2016 over this movie, La La Land will be a musical that will be discussed for years to come. It’s hard not to love an old-fashioned musical set in the present day. I hope Damien Chazelle will direct hundreds of movies after his upcoming film First Man, starring Gosling as Neil Armstrong, the first astronaut to ever set foot on the moon. La La Land is easily one of the best musicals of the century, and I wouldn’t be surprised if this is adapted into a Broadway musical in the coming years. Mia’s song, “The Fools Who Dream”, sums Los Angeles’ portrayal perfectly:

“Here’s to the ones who dream, foolish as they may seem; here’s to the hearts that ache; here’s to the mess we make.”

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“War for the Planet of the Apes”: The Ending to Something Extraordinary

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Caesar (Andy Serkis) returns, and he is not happy, in War for the Planet of the Apes. (Source: Screen Rant)

“War has already begun. Ape started war. And human will not forgive,” says Caesar at the end of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. This is a send-up to the next film in the beloved franchise.

It has been almost 50 years since Planet of the Apes revolutionized the science-fiction genre with its groundbreaking sets and costume design, thoughtful ideas on faith and evolution, and its shocking twist ending. The franchise has come a long way with the reboots. In Rise, a scientist created a possible Alzheimer’s cure tested on apes including Caesar. While Caesar and his apes are given enhanced intelligence which leads to a battle on the Golden Gate Bridge, the humans are given a virus. In Dawn, the so-called Simian Flu wipes most of humanity. The remaining survivors go into an all-out conflict with Caesar and his fellow apes, while Koba betrays him and begins his trek to kill every human soul. War for the Planet of the Apes (2017) returns director Matt Reeves and screenwriter Mark Bomback to focus more on the apes, and give a much darker, grittier, and devastatingly powerful conclusion to one of the best trilogies ever made.

A military group called Alpha-Omega, led by vicious Col. McCullough (Woody Harrelson), begins to emerge. In a breathtaking opening sequence, they attack the apes’ sanctuary in the heart of Muir Woods. Caesar (Andy Serkis), who wanted to offer peace between his fellow apes and the humans for so long, is driven mad after seeing many lives lost. He has plans of relocating his homeland in the middle of the desert, so no humans can be in sight of the apes. Before he could do that, however, he must begin his quest for revenge. Along with Luca (Michael Adamthwaite), Maurice (Karin Konoval), and Rocket (Terry Notary), they encounter a mute girl named Nova (Amiah Miller) and a chimpanzee named Bad Ape (Steve Zahn), who directs them to the facility on the border, operated by McCullough. Once they arrive there, Caesar sees his apes captured and used for slave labor to build a wall to protect his army (I won’t make any Trump jokes, I promise). This immediately becomes the battle of wits.

It’s no surprise that the original Planet of the Apes gained controversy for its allegory of American slavery and the racial tensions of the Civil Rights Movement. To be fair, we still live in a world where racial tensions are the norm. A different race will be discriminated anywhere at any time.  In the case of the Planet of the Apes movies, the irony is that the humans are the least dominant species. War, the ninth film in the franchise, is relevant to the Trmup era (again, no jokes). Reeves directs this social sci-fi movie to his full advantage with the themes of supremacy and prejudice. It asks the question: What does the future hold if the apes are the most dominant species, in terms of evolution?

In a recent interview with Stephen Colbert,[1] Andy Serkis explained that he had no idea he would return to motion capture after doing The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. “This is the end of type casting as we know it,” he said. “Anyone can play anything.”

I can’t agree with him more. Motion capture is certainly the future of film acting. And hopefully for the better. Serkis has fully embraced the instinct of Caesar. Take note on how grayer and wiser he’s getting in each of these movies. In War, we finally get to see the darker side of this brilliant character. We see him evolve from a pet to a leader through compassion. Now—he is getting revenge on losing something so dear to him. With numerous references to the Bible and films of the past, he can be looked at as a Clint Eastwood-type protagonist (one of the film’s biggest inspirations is The Outlaw Josey Wales). He also resembles the biblical Moses.

When we finally get our first glimpse of Col. McCullough, we see a spine-tingling image of him wearing black war paint on his face (one of the references to Apocalypse Now). Later on, we learn more about his motivation and his ties with the Simian virus. With Caesar in his office, he explains how he made the ultimate sacrifice to kill those infected with the virus, which makes humans have the inability to talk. . “The irony is we created you,” says the Colonel. “And nature has been punishing us ever since…no matter what you say, eventually you’d replace us. That’s the law of nature.” From watching the original movies, this makes perfect sense about the humans living on this particular Earth now!

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Comparing behind-the-scenes to the final product. (Source: IMDb)

Zahn, a newcomer to the franchise, provides the film’s comic relief. His Bad Ape is one of the franchise’s most fascinating supporting characters. Originally from the Sierra Zoo, he becomes exposed to the virus and has been hiding out in the snowy mountaintop for years. He becomes their guide leading them to the facility on the border. This results in a funny scene where they make their way through a tunnel.

The beginning and the end of War features two big action set pieces that are as nerve-wracking as they are breathtaking. With the gritty nature going on, what carries the movie through is the simple moments of poignancy. Miller’s Nova represents the innocence during the dark times. Her moments with Maurice are so sweet I want to choke up as much as the rest of the movie. Her moment of grace, however, is during one powerful scene where she sneaks into the facility. She sees Caesar tired and hungry from working on the wall. What does she do? She gives him food and water before escaping from the army. We see one of the apes holding two fists together side-by-side; indicating that “apes together are strong.” The other apes later repeat the act. Accompanied by Michael Giacchino’s outstanding score, it’s impossible not to get teary-eyed.

(As much as I loved Patrick Doyle’s score in Rise, his doesn’t quite capture the gritty nature and simple poignancy of Giacchino’s score in this movie and in Dawn.)

War for the Planet of the Apes may be the end of the trilogy, but the franchise is most certainly not over, according to Matt Reeves. “The idea would never be to remake the ’68 film,” said Reeves in a 2014 interview with JoBlo.[2] “But it would be sort of a re-telling of those events from a new perspective. And the events themselves would probably be a bit different since they will have grown out of these films.” I’m definitely looking forward to seeing exactly where the franchise will go.

[1] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=64mWOoj68qo

[2] http://www.joblo.com/movie-news/exclusive-matt-reeves-talks-dawn-of-the-planet-of-the-apes-169

“Dawn of the Planet of the Apes”: Let’s Bring the Franchise to a Whole New Level!

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Hail, Caesar! (Source: Forbes)

In Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Rupert Wyatt brilliantly brings the popular franchise back to life. A San Francisco scientist created a drug that would cure Alzheimer’s disease. After deeming it a success to chimps, his co-workers decide to make a powerful version of the drug. This causes a worldwide epidemic after the apes had a rebellion on the Golden Gate Bridge to escape to Muir Woods National Monument. This leads up to the next film.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014) introduces somebody else to the director’s chair, and known for making some of the most ambitious films of this century. Enter Matt Reeves, the director of the sci-fi found-footage film Cloverfield and the vampire drama Let Me In (remake of 2008’s Let the Right One In). I’m glad he stepped in to direct more Planet of the Apes films. What he does with Dawn is as ambitious as it is pretty damn captivating.

Ten years after a simian flu outbreak, Caesar (Andy Serkis) and his apes have called the Muir Woods their home. They create their own laws (“Ape Not Kill Ape” being one of the key laws) and teach the young. The movie opens up with them hunting for elk (accompanied by Michael Giacchino’s haunting score, the choir feels reminiscent to Ligetti’s “Atmospheres”, used in the star gate sequence in 2001: A Space Odyssey). Seeing his son Blue Eyes (Nick Thurston) almost killed, Caesar tells him to “Think before you act.”

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The apes prepare for a battle in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. (Source: Red Brick)

Meanwhile, a group of survivors, including Dreyfus (Gary Oldman), Malcolm (Jason Clarke), his wife Ellie (Keri Russell), and son Alex (Kodi-Smit McPhee), are living in a now-devastated San Francisco. They need to get the power running through the city; however, the dam that connects the power throughout the city is on the other side of ape territory. While Caesar wants to keep peace between apes and humans, Koba (Toby Kebbell) has a strong hatred for humans. He goes out of his way to kill every last of them for revenge.

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Koba (Toby Kebbell) kills in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. (Source: Cinema Blend)

Dawn has plenty of connections to Battle. To be fair, this throws every single Planet of the Apes sequel out of the water. Reeves uses the connections from the original films to his full advantage. The movie has a marvelous theme involving supremacy with allegorical connections to Cain and Abel and the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Caesar and Koba are two distinct yet different characters. Caesar’s leadership is through compassion. He might miss having a human companion, but he has to focus on protecting the apes in their sanctuary even his wife Cornelia (Judy Greer) sick after giving birth. A lot of apes join his side, including orangutan Maurice (Karin Konoval). In contrast, Koba is sick of the abuse being brought upon by the humans. In one scene involving dark humor, he encounters two people—Terry (Lombardo Boyar) and McVeigh (Kevin Renkin)—who sit back and having a drink after target practice. Koba entertains them until he picks up a gun and starts shooting them. The reason why Koba is one of the franchise’s most memorable villains is because he is so unpredictable at what might happen to him. It amazes me how smarter the apes are with each movie.

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Behind-the-scenes of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes with Jason Clarke and others. (Source: Wall Street Journal)

Motion capture has certainly come a long way after The Lord of the Rings trilogy. Weta Digital is back to make the CGI apes as seamless as ever. I’m surprised Andy Serkis has not received a special Academy Award for bringing these characters to life. His performance as Caesar is one of the most powerful I have seen in many years. Furthermore, he’s one of the only characters performed through motion-capture that moved me to tears. His affection for humans is just the same for his affection for his ape friends. While Malcolm (wonderfully played by Clarke, fresh from starring as one of the NAVY seals assigned to kill Osama bin Laden in Zero Dark Thirty) may not be like Will, but he has a similar motivation as Caesar in every way. He has suffered so much during the ten years, and wants to have peace in the world as opposed to violence. After losing his youngest daughter to the outbreak, the only people he has to care about is Ellie and Alex. Once Malcolm finds shelter at Caesar’s childhood home, he and his family must help him get back to health. In one powerful scene, Caesar goes through the attic and sees a video camera. He watches a video of him as an infant learning sign language from Will. Malcolm asks who that was in the video. Caesar says, “A good man…like you.”

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Dreyfus (Gary Oldman) looking badass holding that machine gun in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. (Source: Internet Movie Firearms Database)

Dawn is perhaps the most complex film in the series, filled with compelling characters. Gary Oldman’s Dreyfus, for instance, is particularly complicated. It’s obvious that he has a law enforcement background. He lost everything, from his family to his job as a police officer. He’s not happy with Caesar and the apes living on this planet. He’s struggling just as much as everyone else. From the villain in The Fifth Element, Sirius Black, Commissioner Gordon, and now he’s going to play Winston Churchill in the upcoming Darkest Hour, it proves how great of an actor Oldman is.

This movie is most certainly not without its action. Nothing looks more awesome than seeing a group of apes riding on horseback (the shot of the tank is also just as gorgeous as the miraculous sets of post-apocalyptic San Francisco and the apes’ sanctuary). When they finally go at it against the humans, it makes the audience root for both sides. Meanwhile, Caesar has reached his breaking point with Koba, they fight in one of the most thrilling fights set on top of a tower.

It is impossible to top such a classic like the 1968 version of Planet of the Apes, but Matt Reeves has made a wonderful piece of science-fiction with Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. It has just enough thrills, emotion, dark comedy, and visual wonder to make it my personal favorite film in the series. Bring on, War for the Planet of the Apes!

“Rise of the Planet of the Apes”: Something of a Miracle!

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Hail, Caesar (Andy Serkis)! TPihe future king of the apes! (Source: Salon.com)

In 1968, Franklin J. Schaffner and Arthur P. Jacobs introduced a planet unlike any other. A planet where chimpanzees, gorillas, and orangutans (oh my!) have the ability to talk, read and write, and hold a certain occupation. The only humans who live on this planet are mute and used for sport. Based on the books by Pierre Boulle, Planet of the Apes became a definitive science-fiction classic. Three lousy sequels and one good one (Escape from the Planet of the Apes) would soon follow. As well as a 2001 remake, directed by the master of bizarre, Tim Burton.

Ten years later, director Rupert Wyatt sits in the director’s chair to reboot the beloved franchise. Instead of taking place two thousand years into the future, it’s set in the present-day. Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011) has a similar premise to Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, but what Wyatt does with Rise is nothing short of a miracle.

Will Rodman (James Franco) is a scientist working for Gen-Sys in San Francisco. For about six years, he has developed ALZ-112, a drug that can repair bad brain cells. In other words, it may be the key solution to cure Alzheimer’s disease. He, along with other scientists, test the drug on chimpanzees, which give them an intelligence unlike anything they have ever seen. One day, he brings home a baby chimp named Caesar (Andy Serkis), whose mother has been linked with the drug.

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Will always has Caesar’s back in Rise of the Planet of the Apes. (Source: IGN)

This is where morality comes into play for Will. He might be risking his job, but he might be doing something good for once. He uses most of his research on Caesar. Over the past two years, Will begins to realize he can learn words, play board games, and complete jigsaw puzzles at an astounding rate. “He’s been displaying incredible signs of intelligence. I designed the 112 to repair. But Caesar has gone way beyond that,” he says. He goes on to say his IQ double since the year before.

After the incredible discovery, Will uses the drug on his father Charles (the legendary John Lithgow), a former music teacher who happens to have Alzheimer’s. With his condition getting worse, the drug seems to work (he wakes up to see his father playing away on the piano), but not permanently.

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Motion capture makes a vast difference. Doesn’t it? (Source: ComingSoon.net)

If you compare this movie to the originals, it doesn’t come as a surprise the tone of the original films are dry and the ape costumes tend to get a little silly. The 20th century had limited technology, so the only option is using make-up and costumes. We now live in a world where everything is possible. Weta Digital, based in New Zealand, are known for bringing brilliant Lord of the Rings, District 9, The Hobbit to pure life with their brilliant motion capture. Rise is the first movie where the company uses motion-capture not only in the studio, but also on-location. The apes here look a lot more like apes than anything. Dozens of actors are performed through this modern technology (for the better). Known for portraying Gollum and King Kong, Andy Serkis brings forth another great character in Caesar. The expressions and the body language are 100% authentic to an actual ape. It’s hard not to feel sympathetic for Caesar whenever he is in the middle of any difficult situation.

Speaking of emotion, the movie has a lot to get teary-eyed over. In one scene, Charles’s condition returns as he’s about to steal a neighbor’s (David Hewlett) Mustang. Looking out of the attic window, Caesar gets pissed off seeing the neighbor giving Charles a hard time. Then, Caesar attacks the neighbor and bites his finger off. While he might have gone a little too far, he’s just protecting one of the only humans he trusts. Despite convincing him to get a girlfriend in a primatologist named Caroline (Freida Pinto), Will takes Caesar to an infirmary, under the supervision of Dodge Landon (Tom Felton, doing his best attempt at an American accent) There, Caesar meets some colorful characters including a circus orangutan named Maurice (Karin Konoval).

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Caesar protecting Charles (John Lithgow) in Rise of the Planet of the Apes. (Source: Collider)

Rise proves the apes are getting smarter with each movie. Caesar is named after Julius Caesar, the ruthless leader of Ancient Rome. He understands the abuse that the apes have gone through over the years (at one point, Dodge screams, “It’s a madhouse!” One of the many references to the original film). He uses a stick as a metaphor for sticking together as one. “Apes together…weak,” referring to the one stick. Then, he breaks it in half, and holds the two halves together, he says (in sign language), “Apes together strong.”

“Apes stupid,” Maurice deadpans, referring to the apes’ behavior in the sanctuary.

Caesar simply can’t take the abuse anymore. He fights Dodge in the sanctuary. While grabbing onto Dodge, he tells him to “Take your stinkin’ paw off me, you damn dirty ape.” Before defeating him, Caesar yells, “No!” Then, Caesar and his fellow apes escape and cause a rebellion, resulting a miraculous sequence on the Golden Gate Bridge.

(When I saw this movie in theaters, I remember laughing at the Planet of the Apes reference. At the moment when Caesar spoke for the first time, the theater went completely silent. Every time I watch it, the scene never fails to send chills down my spine.)

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Caesar and his primates (no pun intended) take San Francisco by storm in Rise of the Planet of the Apes. (Source: Collider)

While it is bizarre to see a comedic actor perform a serious role, Franco is no stranger to that. After earning an Oscar as Aron Rolston in the magnificent 127 Hours, he leads an exceptional cast with his performance as Will. The reason why he’s one of the most convincing human characters in the franchise is because he takes his work very seriously, while his boss Steven Jacobs (David Oyelowo) decides to improve on the ALZ-112 with a more effective drug, which leads to problems. He trusts Caesar as much as Caesar does to him. This is way before Franco went entirely nuts, and posting a naked mirror selfie on his Instagram.

Rise of the Planet of the Apes is one of those rare reboots which slightly improves over the original. It serves as an excellent build-up to the next film in the series, which happens to be my favorite.

“Planet of the Apes” and the Sequels

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Source: IMDb

Planet of the Apes (1968) – Three astronauts—George Taylor (Charlton Heston), Landon (Robert Gunner), and Dodge (Jeff Burton)—wake up two thousand years later on a faraway planet. They soon discover it populated by highly intelligent apes, who have created their own laws and religion. Suffering from a throat injury, Taylor tries to communicate with two chimpanzees—Cornelius (Roddy McDowall) and Zira (Kim Hunter). They both take a vast interest in him. The only humans on the planet are unable to speak–Taylor takes a liking for the mute Nova (Linda Harrison)—and used for sport. Taylor eventually respects the two apes. (“Take your stinkin’ paws off me, you damn dirty ape!” he sneers at one point when he is captured by gorillas).

Planet of the Apes is a milestone in science-fiction cinema. It’s an allegory of American slavery (almost ironic, in a way) and it tackles the questions of religion and science. Since its release in 1968, the movie stills holds up with its impressive sets and terrific ape costumes and make-up. The performances—led by Heston—are one-of-a-kind. A lot of people who haven’t seen the movie yet might be aware of the film’s iconic twist ending. It’s on the DVD cover, for crying out loud!

One of the best movies ever made!

4/4

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Source: Collider

Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970) – This is where everything gets real bizarre.

Astronaut Brent (James Franciscus) is on a rescue mission to find Taylor on the planet while searching for “his destiny”. In perhaps the most laughable green screen shot in existence, Taylor goes missing through the boulders. Brent finds Nova and encounters both Cornelius and Zira, who warns him about talking to other apes, or else he’ll get in trouble. Nova takes Brent underground until they hear something humming. It’s actually a group of mutants who communicate telepathically.

When I first watched this after seeing Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, I found it to be a decent escape. Rewatching it today, it’s not as good as I remembered. Franciscus makes for a weak protagonist, and it’s obvious Charlton Heston didn’t want to take part in the sequel at all. There also should have been more of a backstory about how the telekinetic mutants lived underground all this time, and wanting to use a doomsday bomb. Beneath might be bad, but it is far from the worst movie in the franchise.

1.5/4

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Source: Den of Geek!

Escape from the Planet of the Apes (1971) – Now—this is more like it!

Cornelius and Zira have escaped from their planet mere minutes before it got destroyed. Along with Dr. Milo (Sal Mineo), they end up going back in time in present-day Los Angeles. Soon, they are brought to the zoo’s infirmary to be looked upon by doctors Stephanie Branton (Natalie Trundy) and Lewis Dixon (Bradford Dillman). Right away, the doctor as well as the public discover the apes are intelligent and understand human speech. They become celebrities. However, problems begin to arise when the public asks where the two apes are from and Zira eventually getting pregnant.

Escape has what the rest of the sequels lack: humor and heart. I had no idea Frank Capra’s son was one of the producers of this movie. It certainly captures the charm reminiscent to Capra’s films. While the audience gets to learn about the apes’ home planet, we also learn how possible time travel is. There is a scene where Cornelius and Zira are brought before the Commission, and explain how humans are treated in their world. “Where we come from, apes talk. Humans are dumb,” Cornelius says to a shocked crowd. Later on, a doctor talks about the possibility of time travel using a painting of a painter painting a landscape as an example.

The movie is not without its flaws, it does have a suspenseful climax and great performances. Good stuff!

3/4

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Source: Collider

Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (1972) – The year is 1991. The apes have taken over the Earth’s population. After a virus that has killed many cats and dogs, the humans use the apes as pets. As the apes get older, they are used more as slaves. Caesar, the son of Cornelius and Zira, does not like this one bit. He leads a rebellion with his fellow apes against mankind.

You have to give Roddy McDowall credit for playing the father and the son in the franchise. He’s the highlight of not only this movie, but the entire franchise. Conquest has a fascinating input of the Earth’s future; making modern ape slavery the subject of controversy. However, the results are a bit underwhelming. The music score is nothing compared to Jerry Goldsmith’s scores in the previous films (his score for Escape is perhaps my favorite). The tone feels as dry as the Sahara desert. The rebellious climax can be suspenseful and a ton of fun to watch, some of the lighting can be dark at times. Caesar’s final speech never fails to send shivers down my spine.

2.5/4

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Source: Collider

Battle for the Planet of the Apes (1973) – Caesar has officially ruled the Earth. His job is to keep peace between his fellow apes and the surviving humans. However, gorilla General Aldo (Claude Akins) begs to differ about keeping humans on their planet. As a group of humans want to gain back their once-beloved civilization, this results in an “epic” battle between the apes and humans.

Is it just me, or have the ape costumes gotten sillier in each sequel? Nothing comes closer than this atrocious sequel. With the exception of the beginning and end, almost every shot looks so cheaply-made (not to mention the movie having a budget of about $2 million). The narrative is a straight-up mess. I mean…how do the modern apes make that quick transition from being enslaved to ruthless leaders?

The title battle is just as embarrassing as it is boring. There is one point in which the same shot of a tree house burning down is used twice. Even Roddy McDowall cannot save this movie from being an absolute disaster. Easily the worst in the franchise.

1/4

“Carrie”: Chilling Stephen King Adaptation Holds Up 40 Years Later

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Sissy Spacek behind the scenes of Carrie (Source: IMDb).

In 1975, Jaws sounded like your a typical B-movie premise. However, the main focus in this horror/thriller blockbuster is the humanity behind our three heroes while going out into the Atlantic Ocean to kill a great white shark. Not only did it make audiences scared of going in the ocean, it also changed the face of horror forever. Meanwhile, before directing Scarface, Brian De Palma got his hands on a hardcover book by an unknown (at the time) author named Stephen King. The book is Carrie.

Carrie (1976) was certainly ahead of its time. It became the first adaptation by King, eventually helmed as “The King of Horror”. Many of his books and short stories have been adapted into wonderful films (Stand by Me, Misery, The Shawshank Redemption, The Green Mile) as well as some bad ones (The Mist). 40 years to the day, it still guarantees to frighten generations of filmgoers. While the movie can be viewed as a supernatural horror film, it also can be viewed as a high school film and a film about adolescent angst. De Palma is the only master filmmaker to create such a work of art!

It’s hard not to write about Carrie without giving spoilers. Make sure you have seen the movie.

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“Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.” (Source: Times Union)

Carrie White (Sissy Spacek) is a shy and lonely girl. She’s a senior at Bates High School—one of many homages to Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho—who is always getting picked on or ignored by her peers. At home, she gets abused by her mother Margaret (Piper Laurie, who came back under the spotlight 15 years after The Hustler), a religious freak who goes out of her way to use her beliefs on her. One day, Carrie gets invited to the upcoming senior prom by Tommy Ross (William Katt), despite the dismay of her mother. No one knows, besides her mother, that she has telekinesis, the power to move things with her mind. She has no idea what she is in for at the prom.

Stephen King wrote Carrie in an epistolary style—telling the narrative in the form of letters, newspaper articles, magazine editorials, and investigative reports. Lawrence D. Cohen kept the book’s nature in his screenplay; however, he decided to get rid of the novel’s structure and tell the movie’s narrative in a straightforward fashion. A few changes from the book have been made, such as the shocking ending (in which Stephen King loved) and a scene where it would have been too dangerous and over-the-top. Unlike the book, the audience sympathizes with Carrie from the opening scene where she and her classmates are taking a shower and changing up after gym class. A long tracking shot (in slow-motion) moves through the locker room where the girls are in the nude and ends on Carrie taking a shower. All of a sudden, she has her first period. Without having an idea what to do, her classmates–queen-bee Chris Hargensen (Nancy Allen), Sue Snell (Amy Irving), Norma (P.J. Soles, who would go on to star in John Carpenter’s Halloween) and others begin to throw tampons at poor Carrie chanting “Plug it up!” until Miss Collins (Betty Buckley) breaks up the commotion. Later, her mother convinces Carrie that menstruation is a sin, and locks her in a closet with Catholic imagery (including an eerie-looking figurine of St. Sebastian) to pray “and ask to be forgiven”.

A year after her stunning performance in Terrence Malick’s Badlands, Sissy Spacek worked as a set designer with her husband Jack Fisk (who also worked as the set designer for Carrie) for De Palma’s cult hit Phantom of the Paradise (1974). In her autobiography, My Extraordinary Ordinary Life, she described her experience as “the hardest job I ever did.” After making a mess with one of the sets, De Palma went as far as calling her “as the worst, no-talent set decorator he’d ever worked with.”[1]

But, Spacek impressed the hell out of De Palma at her audition where she walked in with Vaseline in her hair without washing her face, and feeling bad for herself. Everybody, including some the cast of Carrie, auditioned for Star Wars (William Katt auditioned for Luke Skywalker before being cast as  Tommy Ross). Spacek captures the frustration and optimism of Carrie to perfection. I can relate to her struggle with my own experiences with bullies in middle school and my early years of high school. She and Piper Laurie received Oscar nominations for their performance, which is unusual and surprising for a horror film. As amazing as Spacek’s performance in Coal Miner’s Daughter (1980), the fact that Spacek got snubbed for her first Oscar is actually depressing. Along with Laurie (who described the movie as a dark comedy due to her terrifying, over-the-top performance), Spacek is absolutely electrifying!

As mean-spirited as Carrie is, De Palma does deliver with its moments of dark humor and tender moments. Carrie sees Miss Collins as her only positive role model. When Carrie tells her Tommy invited her to the prom (because Sue felt guilty for becoming a part of the shower incident, she decided to make it up for it by doing her boyfriend a favor to take her), Miss Collins becomes ecstatic. “I know who he goes around with, he’s just trying to trick me again,” Carrie says. Miss Collins convinces her how beautiful she is.

Meanwhile, after being banned from the upcoming prom for ditching detention, Chris and her boyfriend Billy Nolan (John Travolta, in his first major film role, where he, at one point in the film, comes up with Larry the Cable Guy’s catchphrase) decide to go out of their way to humiliate Carrie at the prom. They decide to make her Prom Queen and dump a bucket of pig’s blood on her. The prom sequence is where Brian De Palma showcases his talents.

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“Carrie…We’re here…And we’re together.” (Source: Blastr)

Early on in the prom, Tommy and Carrie decide to share at least one slow dance together. The scene is set up with a camera spinning around them while they are dancing. It starts off slow and picks up speed to the point of going out of control. This is the only moment in the film—if not, her entire life—where Carrie has experienced true happiness. At the same time, however, it hints at what is going to happen to her next. De Palma uses the slow-motion technique as a way of making the sequence as a fantasy before making the shift to the cruel reality, especially in the sequence where Carrie is announced Prom Queen before eventually having her “Cinderella moment” ruined after having her baptismal bloodbath (“You’re a woman now,” Carrie’s mother says to her earlier in the film).

At this moment, Carrie releases her telekinetic powers upon the senior class and faculty. Unlike the 2013 remake (I’ll talk about it some other time), where she uses her powers like an X-Men mutant, she uses her powers through her emotions. Case in point, in the film’s most iconic sequence, she gets really pissed off (take notice of the blood-red lights). With the use of the split-screen, she uses her powers to her full advantage with her eyes wide open. Her presence on the stage sends shivers down my spine.

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“They’re all gonna laugh at you!” (Source: Moviefone)

It’s rare for a horror film, like Carrie, to have so much humanity. Brian De Palma and his team manage to make a film superior to Stephen King’s first novel. With the 2002 television remake and the 2013 theatrical remake, neither compare to the magic of the 1976 classic. It’s such a shame Brian De Palma didn’t have a great filmmaking career after Mission: Impossible (1996), which led him to eventually retire. Nevertheless, Carrie is one of those horror movies that I will continue to watch for a long time.

[1] Sissy Spacek, My Extraordinary Ordinary Life. p. 156, 158.

“Inside Out”: A Colorful Trip Through the Mind

Anger, Disgust, Joy, Fear, and Sadness from

Anger, Disgust, Joy, Fear, and Sadness from “Inside Out”

In 1995, Disney/PIXAR made Toy Story. It became the first feature-length computer animated film following a group of toys coming to life. Not only that, it also became a massive hit, which led to making two sequels. The toys have gone on some wild adventures, but they had never went to the dark side until years later in Toy Story 3, where they end up in a daycare center that feels more like a prison. Eventually, they end up on an exhilarating escape from the daycare back to Andy’s house before he leaves for college. There has never been an ending that tugged hard on the heartstrings.

John Lasseter and his wonderful team are known to create some imaginative ideas. They brought us through the grass in A Bug’s Life. They showed the friendlier side of monsters in Monsters, Inc. and Monsters University. They brought us under the sea in Finding Nemo, and will bring us back next year in Finding Dory. They made every characters cars in the fun albeit formulaic Cars, followed by a disappointing caper in its sequel. They brought a talented rat-chef in a restaurant serving good French cuisine in Ratatouille. They made a strong Scottish princess chose her fate in Brave. They even satirized the superhero genre in The Incredibles.

After 30 years of making short films and feature films, 2015 will be the first time for PIXAR to release two movies in the same year. The first is Inside Out, and the next will be The Good Dinosaur (will be released this Thanksgiving). Following three disappointments, PIXAR finds its mojo in Inside Out. It truly gives the audience what they want: something original, ambitious, imaginative, relatable, funny, and heartfelt. Seeing it three times in theaters makes it something special.

It’s hard to deal with many changes in life. For 11-year-old Riley Anderson (Kaitlyn Dias), she would never leave Minnesota.

Riley from "Inside Out"

Riley from “Inside Out”

We go inside her mind where her emotions are in Headquarters using a control panel to guide her actions. Joy (Amy Poehler) has been the leader of Headquarters from the beginning. It’s her job to keep Riley the happy-go-lucky girl she has always been. Later, new emotions are formed:

  • Disgust (Mindy Kaling), who is charge of preventing Riley from getting “poisoned; both physically and socially”.
  • Anger (Lewis Black) reads newspapers with headlines referring to Riley’s day (“First Day of School”, “No Dessert!”, and so on), and is in charge of making everything fair for her.
  • Fear (Bill Hader) is in charge of keeping her safe.
  • And lastly, Sadness (Phyllis Smith) is the one who can’t control Riley, at first, because the other emotions want her to stay away from sadness.

Every day, new memories–formed in colored orbs–are created and organized. The most important ones, called “core memories”, are formed to build islands that define Riley’s personality. For instance, Riley loves playing hockey. Ever since she scored her first goal, the Hockey Island was built. “What could happen?” Joy asks the audience as Riley turns 11.

*sniff* Riley and her parent sharing a hug.

*sniff* Riley and her parents sharing a hug.

It ends up being that Riley and her parents (Diane Lane and Kyle MacLachlan) are moving to San Francisco. Since her father got a new job, Riley tries to get used to living in a new city. The emotions try to deal with her situation. But when a conflict arises between Joy and Sadness, they end up getting sucked through a vacuum and into “Long-Term Memory”. They leaves the three others in charge.

There has never been a movie so ingenious in its storytelling; going back and forth from the HQ to Riley. Writer/director Pete Docter got the idea for Inside Out from his daughter. According to an interview from the Washington Post, she used to have this happy, goofy spirit. But [at 11] she began to move toward being more quiet and more reclusive. Parents feel emotional reflecting the past as they stare on into the present. “Watching my daughter made me sad,” Docter said. “As a parent, I was playing and being a part of that ‘pretend-play.’ And that was going away. That was a big part of the film.”

Indeed it was! After Riley’s first day of school, her parents ask how her day went. With Joy and Sadness not in HQ, the only thing she can do is become frustrated with them. As she storms up to room, they realize there she is changing.

Meanwhile, Joy and Sadness are in this humongous labyrinth trying to make their way back to HQ. They come across

"I'm positive you can get lost in there."

“I’m positive that you’ll get lost in there.”

Bing-Bong (Richard Kind), Riley’s colorfully eccentric imaginary friend from toddlerhood (and one of the most lovable characters in a PIXAR movie) who has a cotton-candy body, part cat, part elephant, and part dolphin. He agrees to guide their way through short-cuts such as the “Abstract Thought” and “Imagination Land”. They end up catching the “Train of Thought”. You can’t help but smile and often get teary-eyed as they interact with one another due to excellent writing. In one emotional scene, Sadness feels sympathy for Bing-Bong as his spaceship wagon that he and Riley use that runs on star-power goes into an abyss where old memories are vacuumed up by Mind Workers and eventually fade. They wanted to go to the moon. He realizes that Riley is all grown up. As he says his last goodbye, later on, he tells Joy, “Take her to the moon” after helping her getting out of the dump with his wagon (Man–the feels).

"Crying helps me slow down and obsess over the weight of life's problems."

“Crying helps me slow down and obsess over the weight of life’s problems.”

On the other hand, Sadness comes out more as the hero. Earlier, as Riley is at her new school, she introduces herself to the class. She reminisces her life back in Minnesota, and a happy memory appears in HQ of her playing hockey. Then, Sadness touches the orb which turns the happy memory blue. Riley begins to cry knowing how hard it is to move from one place to another. Later, in Long-Term memory, she discusses about one of the memories involving Riley’s parents cheering her up after losing a hockey game. Her teammates come and cheer her up. As Joy is in the dump, he understands why the memory was blue. So she can be consoled. The moral of the story is you can’t have Joy without a little Sadness. This happens again when Riley comes back home in tears saying she misses Minnesota after changing her mind of getting off the bus (a plan that Anger comes up with). By the end, Riley accepts who she is despite how tough it is growing up.

Inside Out is a movie that kids and adults would discuss about for many generations. To be honest, I think the movie would be appreciated more by adults, especially those who have gone through the tough times in their life. Like with every PIXAR movie, they would like to go back to see what they missed, especially Easter eggs (try to find Nemo). The metaphors and the gorgeous animation make the movie a feast for the ears and the eyes. I’m glad Bill Hader is getting more attention after being a cast member on Saturday Night Live. Starring alongside Poehler, another SNL alumnus, I can’t think of better casting. During the end credits, we ask: What is going on inside our heads?