April 1st, 2008

BENEATH THE PLANET OF THE APES (1970) **

After Planet of the Apes, one of the most thought provoking and entertaining science fiction films of the 60’s, made a fortune for 20th Century Fox, the studio did what any good studio would do:  start cranking out cheap sequels left and right.  They cut the budget in half and came up with a pretty shoddy story, but that didn’t stop people from going to see it.  Charlton Heston took one look at the script and said “No way Jose, you’re not putting me back into that loincloth!”, but Fox offered him a lot of money, so he said, “Okay, but I’m only going to be in the very beginning and the very end.  Oh… and everybody’s gotta die in the end!”  The studio said “Sure Chuck, whatever you say”, not only because if they didn’t, they’d lose one of the biggest stars in Hollywood, but also because Heston would take them off his NRA Christmas card list.  So they hired James (The Cat O’ Nine Tails) Franciscus to be the star, mostly because he looks like Heston’s illegitimate brother after a three day drunk and away they went. 

 

This one picks up where the first left off, with Heston finding the remains of The Statue of Liberty on Monkey Beach.  He then wanders off into “The Forbidden Zone” (presumably looking for more tarnished American landmarks) with Linda Harrison (from my hometown of Berlin, Maryland) where he abruptly disappears.  Not long after, astronaut Franciscus crash lands on the planet looking for Big Chuck.  His captain dies in the crash, so Jimmy buries him (Who knew that shovels were standard astronaut equipment?) then takes off and discovers the race of super intelligent apes from the first movie.  A warmongering gorilla general (James Gregory) wants to destroy all the humans (“The only good human is a dead human!”), but the scientist apes led by Dr. Zira (Kim Hunter) want to protect and study them.  Eventually Franciscus tracks Heston down in the Forbidden Zone (which is actually the ruins of New York City) where a race of psychic mutants led by Victor Buono live underground and worship a still ticking atomic bomb.  In the end, the apes crash the congregation’s party and Chuck gets so fed up that he triggers the bomb and blows up the entire planet.  Not to worry though, because this flick made enough green for the studio that they made three more of these suckers. 

 

Things get progressively silly as it goes along (the scene where the mutants sing a psalm to the atomic bomb is especially ludicrous), but that doesn’t mean there isn’t enough here to make this flick worth a look.  I mean where else are you going to see naked super intelligent apes in a steam bath?  Or a bunch of hippie monkey protestors?  How about albino mutants being impaled on spikes? 

 

The studio cut a lot of corners so there’s plenty of padding from the first movie and some of the ape masks are pretty weak.  Director Ted (Hang ‘Em High) Post successfully “apes” the direction of Franklin J. Schaffner from the first film and while the plot is rather flimsy, he keeps things chugging along at a steady clip.  This wildly uneven sequel is moderately entertaining, but there’s nothing here that remotely comes close to the mind blowing ending of the first film. 

 

Since Roddy McDowall was busy directing The Devil’s Widow, he didn’t return for Beneath, but he appeared in all the subsequent entries.  Screenwriter Paul (Goldfinger) Dehn would go onto write the next two chapters in the series.

 

Dr. Zira gets the best line of the movie when she says:  “You’ve been breast fed on bile!”

ESCAPE FROM THE PLANET OF THE APES (1971) ** ½

 

Planet of the Apes movie number 3 has Dr. Cornelius (Roddy McDowall) and Dr. Zira (Kim Hunter) escaping the total annihilation of the world in Beneath the Planet of the Apes by flying Charlton Heston’s spaceship back through time to the (then) present day of the 70’s.  The military doesn’t quite know what to do with the apes, so they toss them into the zoo where vet Bradford (The Mephisto Waltz) Dillman studies them.  When they reveal their intelligent selves to him, he makes them celebrities.  The public immediately takes a shine to the talking monkeys from the future, but unfortunately Victor from Young and the Restless wants them D-E-A-D because he knows that eventually the apes will inherit the Earth.  Things get increasingly complicated when he discovers that Zira is pregnant and that her potential offspring may bring about the downfall of the human race.  When Victor marks the unborn baby for termination, the proud parents flee and take refuge in Ricardo Montalban’s circus where Zira delivers a baby boy.  Victor finally finds the damn dirty apes and guns them down, but not before their primate progeny is rescued by Montalban so he can go on to star in the next sequel. 

 

Again, the studio saved a bunch of money by setting this in modern times and only having three monkey suits to maintain.  Director Don (Damien:  The Omen 2) Taylor competently handles things in a workmanlike manner and delivers a solidly entertaining entry to the series.  The present day setting actually adds to the fun and allowed screenwriter Paul Dehn to add some sly social commentary that was severely missing from the second installment.  (I particularly liked the way that Cornelius and Zira almost immediately became mass consumers and started sporting funky 70’s fashions and the way Zira became a figure for the women’s movement.)  Unfortunately, things get extremely sluggish after Cornelius and Zira escape the clutches of Victor and the like all of the Apes movies, the ending is a bummer. 

 

McDowall and Hunter are completely charming and their chemistry together keeps the film afloat whenever it loses it’s way.  The great human supporting cast includes M. Emmett (The Jerk) Walsh and Jason (The Brain That Wouldn’t Die) Evers, and seeing Victor from Guiding Light (minus his trademark moustache) as the slimy villain only adds to the fun. 

 

McDowall returned the next year in Conquest of the Planet of the Apes. 

CONQUEST OF THE PLANET OF THE APES (1972) **

 

J. Lee (Death Wish 4:  The Crackdown) Thompson was originally supposed to direct the first Planet of the Apes, but he was unavailable, so the producers let him direct the fourth and fifth movies in the series instead. 

 

It is now 1991 and America is run by a totalitarian government.  When a plague kills off all the cats and dogs in the world, the humans turn monkeys into domestic slaves.  Ricardo Montalban still has the offspring of Roddy McDowall and Kim Hunter from the third film, who is now named Caesar and has grown up to be played by… Roddy McDowall.  Caesar is disgusted by how The Man hassles his ape brothers and when Montalban is captured and killed by the evil governor, he vows revenge and incites a revolt among the apes. 

 

This is a solid premise for a sequel, but the social commentary is far more overt and heavy handed this time out (the apes are obvious stand-ins for blacks during both slavery and the Civil Rights Movement) and the tone is considerably darker and much more downbeat than the previous films in the series.  There are also a bunch of glaring continuity errors that will have you scratching your head.  Consider that in the previous film Caesar was named Milo.  Or that even though the film is set 20 years in the future, Ricardo Montalban doesn’t age one bit.  Or that the plague was supposed to take place two CENTURIES after the events of the last film, not two decades.  Or that the first ape to speak was NOT named Aldo, but actually Milo… err… Caesar. 

 

The scenes of simian torture and rioting apes are effective and the hints at monkey breeding are eyebrow raising, but for the most part, the allegories Thompson is making are awkwardly handled and the symbolism is thudding and obvious.  Luckily for the audience, at about the ¾ mark Thompson gives the social commentary a rest and gives us nothing but apes rioting, looting, and blowing away policemen with semi-automatic weapons.  This is definitely the most action packed of all the Apes movies, but it’s just a shame you have to wait about an hour for it to really kick in. 

 

Despite the muddled message, the flick still manages to lay the groundwork for the first film and is able to bring the series full circle.  This was not to be the last stop to the Monkey House for 20th Century Fox however.  The articulate apes returned the following year for one more go around in Battle for the Planet of the Apes. 

THANK YOU FOR SMOKING (2005) ***

 

Aaron (In the Company of Men) Eckhart stars in this black (lung) comedy as a smooth talking lobbyist for Big Tobacco who goes on talk shows and defends the corporations’ rights to sell you cancer causing cigarettes.  He’s a spin doctor of incredible skill whose answers often make you forget the question, even though his occupation is less than reputable.  (“Michael Jordan plays basketball, Charles Manson killed people, I do this.”)  His chief opponent is a Vermont senator (William H. Macy) who wants to put a poison label on all cigarettes.  Eckhart’s defense?  Everyone knows smoking is bad for you so why do you need a label.  While trying to reconnect with his son (Cameron Bright), he also has to deal with a sex starved reporter (Katie Holmes) as well as a group of radical anti-smokers who kidnap him and cover him with nicotine patches. 

 

Eckhart’s magnetic performance is the glue that holds this flick together.  While the pacing slacks up during the film’s second half, Eckhart always commands your complete attention.  I especially liked his verbal sparring with Macy as well as his quieter scenes with Bright.  The excellent supporting cast also includes David Koechner, Maria Bello, Sam Elliott, Rob Lowe and Robert Duvall, all of whom are pretty great. 

 

The film kinda makes it’s point early on and plays all of it’s cards too soon, but it’s filled with enough biting satirical jabs to keep you fully amused.  Director Jason Reitman (son of Ghostbusters’ Ivan Reitman) went on to direct the blockbuster Juno.