War For the Planet of the Apes

July 24, 2017 by  
Filed under Movies

“I can only imagine what you think of me.”

“I think you have no mercy.”

That’s an exchange between Caesar (Andy Serkis), leader of the apes; and The Colonel (Woody Harrelson), who leads a paramilitary group known as Alpha-Omega. It borders on religious zealotry, with the way he has control over his soldiers, and what he wants to do with apes.

We are now 15 years removed from the original simian virus that began to plague the earth when Caesar was young. Beyond “Rise” and “Dawn”, the apes and humans are in a full out…war. Caesar still wants to believe in peace, while his apes have become an extremely strong and effective army. They are isolated in the forests, away from humans. But the Alpha Omega wants to wipe them all out, no matter what.

This is clearly stated after a group of AO tries to infiltrate the apes’ domain. Caesar’s army wards them off, but instead of killing their captives, he sends them back to the Colonel as a peace offering. He wants to show him that they are not savages, and that they can come to terms.

But there is no negotiating with the Colonel. He comes to the camp himself, later that night, with another group of his men. They find a group of apes sleeping, and he kills them. What he doesn’t realize, and somewhat comes to regret, is that he has taken almost everything away from Caesar. He was mostly after Caesar, who had evaded his attack; and now, Caesar wants revenge.

He has dreams of Koba, the ape who was his friend and became his enemy in “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes”, in which Koba is still trying to convince him that all humans are evil. The Colonel makes it very easy to believe that belief.

In fact, unlike “Dawn”, there are nearly zero sympathetic human characters. We have The Colonel, who is cold and icy, extremely clinically played by Harrelson–one of his strongest roles to date. He has a right hand man, Preacher (Gabriel Chavarria), who was spared by Caesar but seemingly unaffected by his good gesture. Preacher is a killing machine, doing the bidding of The Colonel without much else of a personality.

Also doing the bidding of Alpha Omega, surprisingly, are other apes. Known as “donkeys”, these are basically servants of the humans. They load cannons, carry their loads, and sometimes are used as human shields. They are defectors from Caesar’s group, believing moreso in Koba. When Koba was killed, I guess they believed all hope was lost for them. They seem to resent Caesar and still want to survive, so they put up with humans and are treated like animals.

Caesar starts to allow his hate consume him, and goes on a revenge mission to find and kill the Colonel. The other apes had found a peaceful relocation in the desert, where they would be far away from humans and their relentless pursuit of genocide. Caesar wants to go alone, but his closest friends and soldiers won’t let that happen. We’re reintroduced to his inner circle: Maurice the Orangutan (Karin Konoval), who still can mostly only use sign language to speak, much like many of the other apes; Rocket (Terry Notary), a chimpanzee, and Luca, a gorilla. They set off, while the other apes go their own way to find the desert.

The troupe run into a home, occupied by a single man, who tries to kill them. When he is killed first, the apes enter the house, and find a little girl (Amiah Miller). They try to find out her name, but she cannot speak. Maurice convinces Caesar to take her with them, even though he is reluctant.

They also come across what is basically the film’s only comic relief, a zoo chimp named “Bad Ape” (that’s what he calls himself), played by Steve Zahn. Some of his antics are a little off in tone; but for the most part, he’s a needed mood breaker, as the film is very bleak nearly throughout.

This comes to a head when Caesar reaches AO’s compound, only to find that his ape companions that were set off to find the desert have been captured and are being used for hard labor to build a wall. Political undertones, anyone? Quite timely.

As stated above, this film pulls no punches in its narrative. The seemingly heartless Colonel truly is wicked and incessantly cruel to the apes. He has some exchanges personally with Caesar, whom he begrudgingly admires in a way. But then we learn why the Colonel is the way he is: he had a son, who had the virus, but survived. Apparently, the side effect is…devolution. He began to lose his ability to speak, and was reduced to being “an animal” in his fathers’ eyes. When Caesar accuses him of being without mercy, the Colonel throws the virus in Caesar’s face, and asks what’s merciful.

We learn that this devolution has affected a great deal of humans. Along their way to the compound, Caesar and his group come across soldiers left for dead, that also cannot speak–much like the girl. It is assumed she is affected by this as well.

So, the Colonel wants to “purify” the human race by doing away with any survivors who are still infected with the disease. It’s never explicitly explained, but that seems to be why he’s building a wall. Isolate the pure, and destroy everything else.

It would first seem that the Colonel represents the rest of the human race–but that’s not the case. AO is a defector group themselves. And apparently, the other armies are coming for them.

All of this, of course, sets up a large battle as Caesar tries to free the apes, meanwhile the Colonel prepares for the other human armies to come after him.

The film does a fascinating job of steering clear of cliches and tropes that usually bog down a narrative like this. It’s not that humans are bad, they’re misguided. It’s not that apes are savages, either, obviously. But beyond that, there are things that happen that are unexpected, and the surprises are very satisfying. Of course, the strong performances by Andy Serkis and Woody Harrelson help the film greatly. And, like in “Dawn”, the CGI is amazing. Even more brilliant in this one, I think. I really never felt like I was watching computer generated images. The apes, interacting with the humans and landscapes, all felt real.

There are some tough parts to watch: there is torture, and senseless deaths. There are times where you really do get emotionally involved to the point where you forget you’re watching a science fiction film. Of course there’s symbolism here; but it can be appreciated on a very literal level as well. Mercy, forgiveness, and intolerance are at the forefront. But even subtle hints at language and communication are handled well. In fact, in the last half hour or so of the film, there is almost no dialogue at all.

Caesar’s struggle with dealing with humans is challenged by the innocence of the girl, whom he grows an affection for. The Colonel should be an easily hated villain; but something happens that changes your perception on that as well. And just when you think you know where the climax is going, something else happens that shakes everything up–literally.

This is a rare rebooted series, in which it got stronger with each film, culminating in this film, which I believe is as close to a masterpiece as you can get. The weaker elements (the tonal shifts with Bad Ape, and the underdeveloped Preacher) are far outweighed by the strengths of everything else. This is a visually remarkable film; but it’s also emotionally gripping, and extremely intense in its third act.

It certainly belongs in the discussion of great trilogies; and even if the series continues, if it is left in the hands of Matt Reeves and the others that made these films, I think it has limitless possibilities. We’ve seen the “rise”, the “dawn” and now the “war”. If that’s the end, I have no complaints.

But I can’t deny that I’d be hungry for more, if they continued to surprise me like they did here.

My rating: :D

Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens

December 23, 2015 by  
Filed under Movies

“Star Wars” has become less a film franchise and more a cultural phenomenon in the past decade, and a new film–the first not to be helmed by George Lucas–seems almost moot when it comes to critiquing its merits as a film. We know what to expect at this point. Episodes IV, V, and VI all told the story of the Rebellion versus the Galactic Empire. Small fry versus big guy. David vs. Goliath. It was a story we all could relate to; we all wanted to be like Han Solo, but were probably more like Luke. The Force, the Jedi, the Dark Side, were all defining storytelling elements that made that trilogy a classic. Next, Lucas wanted to go back and tell the story of Luke’s father Anakin with episodes I, II, and III. He attempted to tell a backstory that really fell flat, and didn’t create very engaging characters. He certainly managed to create some really annoying ones, though. Through the years, the vitriol for the prequels has abated, and now–for better or worse–they are a part of the “Star Wars” film canon. There’s even a DVD release that puts them in order so you can watch I-VI, as George Lucas, er, intended (if you really want to believe that).

Episode VII resembles the first trilogy (that is, the middle episodes). It begins with action and ends with action, and in between we have a very predictable story arc that is plucked right out of “A New Hope”. We are introduced to a few new characters: a disgruntled Stormtrooper (cloning went out of style) named FN-2187 (well played by John Boyega) opts out of the program and joins a new rebellion called the Resistance to overcome the First Order, which are the remnants of the old Galactic Empire. FN is paired with Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac, in an appealing role) who nicknames him “Finn”. The big driving story is that Luke, the last of the Jedi, has gone missing and both the Resistance and the First Order are trying to find him. The Resistance obviously wants him to help their cause; the First Order wants to vanquish him. The map to Luke’s whereabouts is given to a cute little droid named BB-8, and that map becomes an obvious MacGuffin very quickly. Meanwhile, a girl, Rey (Daisy Ridley), comes into contact with the droid, and also Finn after his ship crashes on the planet she’s on, presumably killing Poe. Finn, Rey, and BB-8 stumble upon the Millennium Falcon, and we are soon reacquainted with two familiar and very welcomed faces: Han Solo (Harrison Ford, always a pleasure), and Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew). Solo is back to being a smuggler, but he has left a little legacy behind: Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) who just happens to be a part of this First Order, taking orders from a mysterious leader, Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis) that looks a little bit like a middle earth reject from “Lord of the Rings”. It’s fitting Serkis would play him. Ren has the Force, because his mother happens to be Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher), a General with the new Resistance. Ren obviously is torn by two worlds, in a way that Darth Vader was. Ren also wears a mask and has his voice modulated–but here it’s by choice, rather than because of being disfigured and dismembered. Ren is younger, and more unsure of who he really wants to be. It’s a good choice for a character arc, as we know Ren will most likely be the focal villain who we want to like a whole lot more than we wanted to like Darth Vader. But Kylo Ren is capable of some pretty horrible things as well, including dispatching a very well liked character. I still think it was a mistake to be rid of this particular character. But J.J. Abrams, the director, must have wanted to shake things up early.

He does a very good job of balancing the action with the character narrative, and the film’s pace is snappy. Like the original trilogy, the film never feels as long as it actually is. There’s even some good humor peppered in, something that was severely lacking in the prequels, and something that really added to the entertainment value of the film.

And as a film, it does work quite well. As a sci-fi yarn you do have to suspend disbelief at times. But there’s never a point where I felt “out” of this movie. I was sold, from the first moments of the opening crawl, and the film never let me go as an invested viewer. Of course, it ends on a cliffhanger, and so it’s hard to judge how this will all work out in the end.

But it certainly is a very strong start to hopefully a redeeming trilogy, one that can stand the test of time that the original has. It has a lot of pressure riding on it, but I think Abrams & Co. are up to the task.

My rating:†:-)

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

July 23, 2014 by  
Filed under Movies

I was not a big fan of “Rise of the Planet of the Apes”; however, I was not averse to the series being rebooted. I was hoping for something a little more brazen and daring, maybe. Like the original Rod Serling-penned film was. I know that Hollywood isn’t what it used to be and it’s harder for mainstream films to have a “message” that isn’t politically correct or sometimes downright cloying; but the “Apes” series was about change, and progression. It was a social commentary about race relations and bigotry–something that still and always will permeate society. “Rise” seemed to fall short on that, and the storyline just felt predictable and easy. That said, I did appreciate Andy Serkis’ performance as Caesar. He seems to be right at home as a CGI enhanced character.

Here he returns as Caesar, but things have changed dramatically for planet earth. The virus hinted at in “Rise” has now wiped out a good portion of the human population, and apes are unaffected. They are, however, pretty smart and have evolved (oops, careful) into a healthy society. Caesar is their leader, with his old friend and wingman, Koba (Toby Kebbell) at his side. He also has a son named Blue Eyes (Nick Thurston) and a newborn with his wife Cornelia (Judy Greer), who is suffering from an illness after the second son is born. The apes seem to be living happy as a tribe, until they are met with a group of humans, led by Malcolm (Jason Clarke). Koba hates all humans, but Caesar isn’t so quick to dismiss them all. He knows there is good in them, he just has a hard time trusting them. When it’s discovered that the humans need to access a dam to give power to their dwellings outside the forest, Caesar has to make a choice to trust them. The dam happens to be in their jurisdiction. The humans are desperate, with only enough fuel at their compound to last another week. The leader, Drefyus (Gary Oldman), doesn’t really have an opinion on the apes, he just considers them animals. But Malcolm has seen their intelligence and isn’t intimidated as much as he is fascinated. He and Caesar strike a bond, with Caesar most likely remembering his younger years as a subject with Will (James Franco, making a cameo appearance in an old video that Caesar stumbles upon when he is in his old abandoned home). Caesar lets the humans do their “human work”–then, Koba reminds him, in a well done scene, that he, too, has had “human work”. He points to his scars, and simply says, “Human work”. The apes can talk, but primitively. They can complete sentences, but they cannot yet talk as well as, say, Dr. Zaius.

The strongest performances come from Serkis and Clarke as Caesar and Malcolm. Director Matt Reeves is wise to allow the film to breathe once in a while and give some time to flesh out the characters. Malcolm has a son, but lost his wife to the virus. His love interest, played well by Keri Russel, lost a child as well, and tries to form a bond with Malcolm’s son, named Alexander. Alexander begins a bit of a friendship with the Orangutan, Maurice (Karin Konoval). But it’s Caesar’s friendship with Malcolm that pushes this story along–although I will also mention that the story of Caesar and his son Blue Eyes is strong as well. Caesar finds that he can trust Malcolm, but not everyone. A member of his crew, Carver, hates the apes and plays one of the unfortunately strawman villains that is simply in there to stir things up. Koba, who is a stronger villain, somewhat dwindles into a stereotypical antagonist by the end as well but he does have some strong earlier scenes. I think the best scene with Koba involves him infiltrating the humans’ military compound where two moronic guys are testing guns. He acts like a dumb circus ape (a bonobo to be exact), and gets the guys to lower their defenses when he suddenly grabs their gun and “accidentally” kills one. The other one, terrified and astounded at the same time, suffers the same fate except Koba shows that he knows exactly what he’s doing this time.

The climactic battle between humans and apes is an exciting one, and impressive for it being almost entirely CG. Nothing looks phony or out of whack (although I wouldn’t recommend wasting the extra money to see it in 3-D, it does absolutely nothing). In the end, both Caesar and Malcolm know that no matter how much they want peace, it’s always the violence that wins out. Finally, we get a bit of that old “Apes” film feel when we know we’re just all doomed. The end certainly sets up another sequel, and I won’t give away how it all unfolds. But it is very strong, and very convincing, something that I just felt was lacking in “Rise”. This is a very well done sequel, and should be considered among the “better than the original” sequels like “The Godfather II”, “Empire Strikes Back”, and “Terminator 2: Judgment Day”. It moves at a good pace for a film that’s over two hours, and the performances are all very well done.

If there was a necessary injection to give life into the franchise, this one delivers and is just what it needed, even after a soft origin film.

My rating:†:-)

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

December 26, 2012 by  
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Much like the individual films of the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, it’s hard to review something you know is simply part of a bigger story. Like “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Pt. 1”, you’re only seeing a portion of the whole story. Most trilogies are forged simply because they’re just stringing together sequels (like the “Alien” and “Back to the Future” franchises), whereas these films almost cannot be viewed on their own without seeing all 3 of the films. There is no ending in “The Fellowship of the Ring”; there’s no resolution at the end. Same, obviously, with “Deathly Hallows Pt. 1”. Well, we have the same problem with “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey”, which seems more like an unexpected trilogy since “The Hobbit”, unlike “The Lord of the Rings”, was only one book.

I wasn’t enthused about this being stretched into a trilogy. Peter Jackson has gained an apt reputation of being rather self-indulgent with the “Lord of the Rings” franchise, and here it just seemed like he was milking it even more.

But after seeing “An Unexpected Journey”, I think I may have been a little harsh on him to begin with. Besides some pace problems in the beginning, and a lack of a clear reason why Bilbo Baggins (played marvelously by Martin Freeman) wants to go on a dangerous journey, the film is certainly reminiscent of the energy and fun that permeated “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy. I suppose these could be called prequels; but this is already a better start than a certain other prequel trilogy which I won’t name.

Here, though, Jackson doesn’t have to practically start all over with his palette of characters. We are familiar with Bilbo, but only as an aged and retired hobbit; there is no Merry, no Pip, and hardly much of Frodo. But we are re-introduced to Gandalf; and, at a later point, Smeagol. So it’s a bit of a reunion but not exactly a “gang’s all here” film. Instead, we have a new gang. All dwarves. The backstory is that a dragon named Smaug wiped out much of the dwarves’ kingdom, and the leader, Thorin (well played by Richard Armitage), is aiming to take back their kingdom. Smaug has settled in what’s called the Lonely Mountain, which is where the dwarves’ home is. Bilbo is enlisted by Gandalf who believes he has a higher purpose than just rotting away in Bag End, and thinks he may be able to help the dwarves because he’s so light on his feet and easy to miss when coming into contact with the enemy. And speaking of the enemy, a pack of Orcs are after the dwarves after their leader’s arm was sliced off during a battle by Thorin, after Thorin witnesses his grandfather slain by the war chief.

Once the dwarves and Bilbo have joined forces, the film’s pace quickens, and we’re taken on another lush journey through Middle Earth, and we even get to see Rivendel again. The special effects are very well done, and although there is some shoddy 3-D effects and the high frame rate can be a bit nauseating, the creatures look great and the magic looks splendid. I also liked the dwarves, and felt a bit of pity for them as they’re forced to be forever nomads. They’re not as easily accessible as the hobbits in “The Lord of the Rings”; but they have their own unique charm. The performances by the principal dwarf characters, along with the other main characters, are all strong.

I was trying to think throughout the film what it’s about compared to “The Lord of the Rings”, which is about the journey of friendship and maturing in life. It seems as though “The Hobbit” is about discovery, and trust. The dwarves and Bilbo aren’t going to be best friends. They’re too far apart as people, and there are too many of them to become intimate. Bilbo is more independent than Frodo, and a bit more selfish. With this theme, however, I believe Jackson has enough material to span two more films.

The running time is a bit laborious; but at least the ending comes when you expect it to, and the film doesn’t run on too long in that regard. Besides that, I am†a fan of fantasy films in general, and I always appreciate them being done well such as they are in this case. For this, I actually had a great time revisiting this world, and I see why Jackson has spent so much time and effort on this project. You can see he loves it, too, and that this is a labor of love rather than a love of cash. He allows his characters to talk to each other, to have fun with each other, and entertain each other as much as they entertain us. The soundtrack, again, is wonderful to listen to. This is a film that lives and breathes through the Middle Earth, and if you want to take the trip, you won’t be disappointed with it. I would say, however, if you weren’t a fan of “The Lord of the Rings”, don’t make the mistake of thinking this will change your mind. You may as well stay away from it.

There is a thought out there that says this trilogy is making us “pay” for the success of “The Lord of the Rings”. That may be true; but if you’re willing to pay the price, it’s well worth it.

My rating: :-)

Rise of the Planet of the Apes

August 7, 2011 by  
Filed under Movies

Look out, Hollywood! The apes are back! But where’s Estella Warren? Hm? Where are you?? She’s gone…it’s all gone. It’s all been re-booted. In the totally original genre called “re-booting” franchises that was handled with brilliance like in “A Nightmare on Elm Street” (which would have been a hated movie by me if I could have just stayed awake throughout it)…or wait, I think that was just a remake. This is a true re-boot. It’s like “Star Trek”; except, it’s different. There’s no Captain Kirk, for one thing.

So let me tell you the plot because it’s OMG so totally WeSoMEZZ (I just made that up; think it can become a meme?)

It’s about this guy (James Franco, who holds a record of being miscast in films; I think his streak is up to 5 now or something) who wants to treat his dad (the Harry-less John Lithgow, who trades Sasquatch for a chimp) for Alzheimer’s disease by creating a retrovirus called “113” and tests it on apes. The result? The chimps have a heightened intelligence. This is pretty amazing, of course. But it doesn’t impress his boss, played as standard as possible by David Oyelowo (say that five times fast! starting…now!), and so the project is scrapped. Well, there is a test subject that he takes home with him, named Caesar (named after the dressing), and this is no ordinary chimp–it’s a CGI! (Chimp Graphic Interface). Forgive the cheap joke.

Well, Caesar is quite limber and intelligent, and the film spends a few reels showing something that’s very akin to cut-scenes in a video game as we see Caesar grow up and become more intelligent; meanwhile, Dear Old Dad is given a dose of the medicine as well, and it actually works. Unfortunately, it doesn’t last forever…and he replases eventually. Meanwhile, the guy, Will, develops a relationship with a doctor named…oh…you know? I don’t remember. Why? Because she serves no purpose other than to say a few things to Will about how careful he should be. And they kiss at some point. Finally! The film lapses through about 8 years–this girl knows how to hold out.

Also, Caesar starts to really emo out. He gets lonely and sad, and wonders if he’s just considered a pet (which he is), and winds up taking out his self-loathing on a neighbor (who gets a few shots taken at him…but not enough payoff). He is sent to a little…monkey prison, where he is tormented by Draco Malfoy (well, Tom Felton, the guy who played him) to the point where Emo Caesar starts to really get peeved. He befriends the apes in the prison, and they basically break out and wreak havoc.

And that’s actually where this movie is so disappointing! Here you’ve got a pretty entertaining premise, and Andy Serkis is so good as a CGI actor that he’s basically a human special effect…possibly the best ever. But they go so by the book, standard, garden variety, no violence and no real tension…it’s not that it’s boring, it’s just that it’s so sterile! This movie could have had a lot of fun with itself, or gone the complete opposite direction and make it a real bloodbath. Apes just killing and pillaging and whatnot.

Instead, the movie feels like some kind of weird kid’s movie, which is†confusing because kids would probably be scared to death of these chimps once they turn, and I gotta believe zoos better be aware that kids need to be told that A) the chimps in the zoo are not computer generated and B) not going to suddenly go America all over your ass.

Yes, the apes hold our attention more than the cardboard cut out human characters; but they’re also given very formulaic personalities that never really lets them breathe…so we get something that could be maybe enjoyed at a Drive-In; but it could have been a really fun movie if it wasn’t so Studio-tweaked.

I wanted to have fun with the movie; but it just didn’t let you in. It looks good, the CGI is well used, and the emo factor is fantastic–all Caesar is missing are the bangs. And maybe a Twitter account. But this movie just doesn’t explore any of the amazing possibilities (like Apes using Twitter) that it had, so we’re left with a very banal and standard action film that’s so synthetic that we can’t connect with any of it.

I can only hope the sequels do something more; but I highly doubt that’ll happen.

Maybe they could at least use LinkedIn though…

My rating: :(