Monday, September 26, 2016

AFOS Blog Rewind: Rise of the Planet of the Apes

(Photo source: 20th Century Fox)

The following is a repost of my September 3, 2015 discussion of Rise of the Planet of the Apes.

The most astounding thing about director Rupert Wyatt's 2011 surprise hit Rise of the Planet of the Apes, the second and better-received of two different attempts by 20th Century Fox to relaunch its Planet of the Apes franchise from the '60s and '70s, isn't the motion-capture technology the film deployed to bring to life superintelligent simians. It's the film's ability to somehow take otherwise charismatic actors like Brian Cox, Deadbeat star Tyler Labine and David Oyelowo and make them the most boring fucks on Earth.

For instance, the future Martin Luther King plays a villainous businessman here--before seeing Selma, I almost forgot Oyelowo previously appeared in this loose remake of 1972's Conquest of the Planet of the Apes--but he makes way more of an impression as a villain on the animated Star Wars Rebels, even without ever showing his actual face. As the superintelligent chimpanzee Caesar, Andy Serkis, with the help of Weta Digital's motion-capture tech, is the real star of these modern-day Apes movies. After the remarkable and expressive mo-cap acting of Serkis, Karin Konoval, a.k.a. Mrs. Peacock from the ultra-disturbing X-Files episode "Home," and, in 2014's Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, Toby Kebbell, there's no way in that place Charlton Heston damned them all to that these Apes movies are going back to burying the actors under rubber John Chambers ape masks.

I appreciate how both Rise and Dawn are Caesar's story rather than the story of either his human father, Bay Area pharmaceutical scientist Will Rodman (James Franco)--whose search for a cure for Alzheimer's inadvertently triggers the events that will lead to the dominance of apes over humans--or one of Will's relatives. It's preferable over the way the Autobots are relegated to guest stars in their own live-action Transformers movies. But these modern-day Apes prequels, especially Rise, could really use a human ally character with the personality of either Heston's cantankerous Colonel Taylor from the first two Apes installments or Ricardo Montalban's Armando, Caesar's foster dad from the third and fourth Apes installments (as Will's dad, who's suffering from Alzheimer's, John Lithgow gives the best non-simian performance in Rise).

Franco is in visibly bored, "grrrr, where's my paycheck so that I can get some new leather paddles for my next art installation?" mode here. I wish Caesar's favorite parent were played by either Jeff Goldblum, who would have imbued some personality into Will and would have been able to bring a bit more life to Will's compassion for Caesar (but Will's dad would have had to have been played by someone older than Lithgow), or better yet, an actress like Jessica Chastain, because these modern-day Apes movies are too much of a sausage fest (Freida Pinto and, in Dawn, Keri Russell are little more than background extras).

That's one other thing that's missing from Rise and Dawn: a charismatic female presence like Kim Hunter's when she played Dr. Zira, the banana-hating chimp who becomes an ally of Taylor's, in the first three Apes movies. It's too bad Konoval's kindly circus orangutan Maurice, a simian character I like even more than Caesar, isn't female.

Maurice, who was named after 1968 Apes star Maurice Evans, is a huge part of why Rise is at its best when it moves away from Will and concentrates on the beginnings of Caesar's ape revolt. The dialogue for the scenes between Caesar and his simian followers is delivered in subtitled sign language, and the large amount of subtitled ASL in Rise is something you'd never expect to see in a summer blockbuster. Rise's comfort with silence and minimized dialogue during the ape sanctuary scenes and its confidence in maintaining that silence both make the digitized little girl's voice that translates Amy the gorilla's ASL in 1995's Congo sound all the more stupid.

All the spoken dialogue in the ape sanctuary scenes comes from the apes' mostly sadistic jailers, with the cruelest of them being Dodge Landon, played by Harry Potter villain Tom Felton in a not-very-convincing American accent. I really wish it were William Zabka from the original Karate Kid playing Dodge instead of Felton. It's such a Zabka part. Who wouldn't want to see a 20-something Zabka get smacked around by an angry gorilla?

Felton has to deliver the cheesiest line in Rise and the prequel's most blatant callback to the first and best Apes movie: Heston's classic "Take your stinkin' paws off me, you damn dirty ape!" line. It's interesting how the worst line in the movie--a line we really didn't need to hear again because it's all too reminiscent of Tim Burton's misguided 2001 Apes remake--is followed by the movie's most powerful line, a moment that was foreshadowed by Roddy McDowall's Cornelius in the first Apes prequel, 1971's Escape from the Planet of the Apes: Caesar saying his first word, "No!"

Caesar's first word is the moment when Rise changes from a sci-fi prequel that's initially as pointless as The Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones to the kind of riveting and worthwhile Apes movie we've always wanted to see but couldn't because of early-'70s 20th Century Fox's shoestring budgets and because of how limited creature FX technology was before the geniuses at Weta Digital got their stinkin' paws on it. I dig the city of San Francisco, but Serkis, Konoval and the other mo-cap performers are so skilled at turning Caesar and his lieutenants into sympathetic figures that I ended up rooting for their characters to wreak havoc on San Francisco. Now if only the movie would show Caesar and his army kicking each and every neighborhood gentrifier out of town.

(Photo source: 20th Century Fox)

Monday, September 19, 2016

AFOS Blog Rewind: Rick and Morty, "The Ricks Must Be Crazy"

The following is a repost of my September 4, 2015 discussion of "The Ricks Must Be Crazy," an episode of Rick and Morty. "The Ricks Must Be Crazy" can be streamed in its entirety on Hulu.

"The Ricks Must Be Crazy" feels like somebody on the Rick and Morty writing staff had a chip on his shoulder about Tron: Legacy, especially the ways it handled its premise of Jeff Bridges creating an entire universe full of sentient life inside a computer, and he didn't care for what he felt was a simplistic screenplay. Tron: Legacy is a good example of both the story serving the visuals rather than vice versa--however, director Joseph Kosinski's style-over-substance approach still couldn't stop me from watching Tron: Legacy in IMAX 3D twice because, holy fuck, that movie looks mesmerizing in IMAX 3D--and those visuals being made to look so sumptuous that they're able to distract the audience from thinking too long about the story's plot holes or unexplained details. Some of the questions that arose from those unexplained details included "How's it possible for Jeff Bridges and his family to enjoy a meal of lechon if fresh meat is impossible to bring into the Grid?" and "Was there a Filipino chef in Jeff Bridges' family whom we never knew about?"

A lot of why "The Ricks Must Be Crazy" is a highlight of Rick and Morty's second season is due to how much fun Justin Roiland, Dan Harmon and credited episode writer Dan Guterman are clearly having over imagining if Jeff Bridges could leave and re-enter the Grid freely instead of being imprisoned there by his evil doppleganger/digital avatar Clu and what would happen if Jeff Bridges craved power as much as Clu does and he turned out to be an even bigger dick than the marginally flawed, almost Fred MacMurray-like Zen inventor dad we saw in Tron: Legacy. "The Ricks Must Be Crazy" reveals that Rick has created an entire infinite universe inside the battery in his space car, and its inhabitants' only purpose in life is to power Rick's car battery. "That's slavery!," counters an appalled Morty when Rick introduces him to what he calls the microverse.

Instead of the more simplistic scenario of a completely evil duplicate of the universe's creator betraying that creator by enacting ethnic cleansing and plotting to rule the world outside the universe's barriers, one of the microverse's inhabitants, a Frank Grimes-ish scientist named Zeep Xanflorp (special guest star Stephen Colbert, whose Colbert Report writing staff happened to include Guterman), refuses to fall for Rick's white savior act like everyone outside the scientific community in the microverse. Zeep is on to some of Rick's deceptions. Those deceptions range from Rick disguising himself as an antennaed alien savior whenever he visits the microverse to Rick telling the microverse's inhabitants that the middle finger is a peaceful greeting.

Zeep plans to oust Rick from the microverse and free the microverse from servitude, but Zeep's no saint either: he has secretly created his own infinite miniverse in a box to provide the energy for his microverse and make obsolete the technology Rick brought to Zeep's microverse, and he's exploiting the people in that miniverse just like Rick is doing to the people in the microverse. In fact, one of the leading scientists in the miniverse, Kyle (special guest star Nathan Fielder from Comedy Central's Nathan for You), has also secretly built his own teenyverse in a box and...

Monday, September 12, 2016

I'm trying to put an end to my history of writing a piece of fiction and never finishing it

I'm too busy working on a manuscript for a prose novel right now to post any new material for the AFOS blog. I've discovered that it takes me an entire week to finish writing each chapter in this manuscript. The novel is currently intended to consist of 31 chapters, so if I continue at this one-chapter-a-week pace without ever stopping, I'll be done with the manuscript by the end of February 2017.

That means I have no time to write any new blog posts for the AFOS blog for the rest of the year. I'm so committed to finishing this thing (and then shopping it around) that I don't allow myself to watch a new episode of Mr. Robot until I'm done writing an entire chapter.

"The Pet" was an unfinished Filipino monster story I've mentioned in great detail on this blog. Filipino monster folklore definitely needs more shine, and I was hoping "The Pet" would help out in bringing some more exposure to Filipino monster stories. It's not the first story I've tried to write and ended up failing to finish due to writer's block.

In high school, I wrote an unfinished novel called Jasper, about a Filipino teen who kills a racist bully and runs away. I never was able to reach the killing-the-bully-and-running-away part of the story, which was disappointing because the greatest thing about fiction writing is that you can murder people who are assholes without getting thrown in jail. Despite the novel being unfinished (and also being rather aimless and not very good by my standards today), I allowed its completed chapters to be used as part of the syllabus in a Filipino American lit course one of my older brother's friends presided over at UC Santa Cruz in 1993. It was interesting to later see the Robert Duvall movie The Apostle echo the plot of Jasper with its story of a preacher who kills his wife's lover and escapes to another town to start over and continue with his preaching.

Then I tried to write a screenplay for a time-travel comedy called Timegroove back when I reluctantly worked in the tech industry, but I was never satisfied with the dialogue. Also, the original Life on Mars was doing wonderful things with the "modern-day cop trapped in the '70s" premise, so why fucking bother? Life on Mars was immensely better than much of what I had in mind for Timegroove.

The Timegroove plot had an Asian American cop chasing an escaped criminal who hijacked an Indian inventor's record player-inspired time machine and hid out in the '70s, and the protagonist had to put up with worse forms of racism than the forms of racism he encountered in the present day. His '70s female love interest was an Asian American undercover cop named Lotus Blossom, whose name was a reference to a really cheesy slow jam of the same name by the band War, and his '70s partner was a black cop named Stroke Johnson.

In the '70s, the protagonist also encountered a younger version of the time machine's inventor and turned to him for help to get back to the present, and the inventor dressed exactly the same as his older self. The Timegroove script never went past the first couple of scenes.

Infernal Affairs, the Hong Kong crime flick that was remade as The Departed, or rather, The De-pah-ted (Photo source: DVD Beaver)

Finally, there was a 2010 webcomic script called The Palace: Continuous Hell. It was about a movie theater worker who, after work, is forced to wait in a never-ending line outside a nightclub, while her theater co-workers go insane as they sit through a staff-only advance screening of a new and totally unnecessary Infernal Affairs sequel from Hong Kong because the movie never actually begins. A lot of modern-day Hong Kong movies kick off with 800 different movie studio logos, but this fictional Infernal Affairs sequel opens with 800,000 of them.

I wrote Continuous Hell before Family Guy, a show I greatly dislike, riffed in 2011 on movies that open with too many production company logos. Continuous Hell had a great webcomic title too: it referenced a line from the original Infernal Affairs ("The worst of the eight hells is called Continuous Hell. It has the meaning of Continuous Suffering"), and I especially like how the words "Continuous Hell" can easily be sung to the tune of "Promiscuous" by Nelly Furtado and Timbaland ("Continuous Hell, whatever you are...").

Unlike the other unfinished stories, I actually completed writing the Continuous Hell script, but I never took the script to the drawing stage because I retired from trying to draw webcomics by then. They're fucking hard to draw.

The likelihood of me finishing my current manuscript is higher than the likelihood of me ever drawing a webcomic again. It's time to finally break the cycle.

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

AFOS Blog Rewind: Scott Pilgrim vs. the World

Bass! How low can they go?

So which one's Ecks and which one's Sever?

Oscar-winning Room star Brie Larson has had a killer year as a dramatic performer, so it's time to revisit my March 5, 2015 discussion of an offbeat cult movie in which Larson got to revisit her little-known past as a teenage pop singer, as well as experience a taste of her future. In this 2010 movie, Larson briefly dabbled in the same kind of pulpy material she'll be tackling soon as the star of the forthcoming tentpole blockbusters Kong: Skull Island and Captain Marvel. This 2010 movie has also been on its director's mind lately. When it aired on Channel 4 in the U.K. last month, the director live-tweeted a bunch of crazy behind-the-scenes details about the movie.

The 2010 coming-of-age flick Scott Pilgrim vs. the World is an interesting anomaly in the work of Edgar Wright, the great British director behind the innovative sitcom Spaced and the irreverent Cornetto trilogy with Spaced stars Simon Pegg and Nick Frost (Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz and The World's End). It's his only adaptation of someone else's creation so far, it doesn't take place in England, neither Pegg nor Frost are in the cast and it was his first studio movie, so that meant he had to deal with the often absurd American test screening process.

I recently listened to Wright discuss gauging audience reactions in his Blu-ray audio commentary for Scott Pilgrim's deleted scenes, which include the film's original ending before it was reshot (should Scott have ended up with Knives Chau or Ramona Flowers?: I think the film should have ended either with Scott being single or Scott, Knives and Ramona becoming a threesome because a fight like the ones they had versus Gideon Graves is bound to make everyone horny). Something during that commentary didn't sit right with me. A brilliant and unique comedic filmmaker like Wright should not have to make decisions based on test screenings, even though he has said he considers it "a good thing to do because you see where the laughs are and where you can change things by half a second to get a bigger laugh."

Aside from comments from test screening audience members to DreamWorks Animation that Hiccup should be left disabled at the end of the first How to Train Your Dragon movie, have those test screenings ever been really useful? If Martin Scorsese tried to win back the 40 GoodFellas test screening audience members who walked out after the movie's first 10 minutes, GoodFellas wouldn't have been the GoodFellas we know and love. Unless I'm mistaken, neither of Wright's Cornetto flicks were tweaked due to test screening reactions (in fact, when Hot Fuzz did go through the test screening process in America, Wright defied a suggestion to change Hot Fuzz's title). I hear those movies turned out okay.

While Wright has said he's proud of Scott Pilgrim's final cut, that first experience of trying to please studio execs during the making of that movie had to have colored his heartbreaking decision to quit directing his longtime pet project, this summer's adaptation of Marvel's Ant-Man, where Wright was replaced by Bring It On director Peyton Reed. While squabbling with Marvel Studios execs over the direction of Ant-Man, I'm sure Wright was thinking, "How can the same shit happen to the same guy twice?"