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

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

December 4, 2013 by  
Filed under Movies

So here we go again. Or do we? Well, Katniss and Peeta are heroes and are back in their District, living in better conditions but the District is still impoverished. The rest of the Districts don’t know that they believe Katiss and Peeta are really in love; but most importantly, President Snow (reprised by Donald Sutherland) doesn’t believe it. He knows they faked it to win, and got one over on him. He can’t handle it, so he tries to play a game of his own, to try and out them publicly while the new Gamesmaker, Plutarch (Philip Seymour Hoffman) comes up with a way to get Katniss to expose herself as a fraud and stifle some sparks of a new Revolution.

Katniss is still in love with her longtime friend, Gale (Liam Hemsworth), but does have some feelings for Peeta. They’re just not strong enough to be considered “true love”. As she and Peeta go on tour through the Districts, they’re given scripts to read to each one; and are basically paraded around to show that the Hunger Games were worth all the death, I guess. I still can’t really figure out the purpose of what the “Hunger Games” is about. I mean, the overall message to the audience. But by now, I don’t think it matters that much. This movie, once it gets going, really is more about the action and adventure…and love. It’s ánot really about having a message.

And, like the first one, that’s all fine well and good. Meaning, I still enjoyed it. I think Jennifer Lawrence is even stronger in this film, showing a more emotionally fragile Katniss who has to be stronger than she was in the first Hunger Games. Hutcherson is still likable as Peeta, and we’re introduced to some new characters too: Finnick (Sam Claflin), Beetee (Jeffrey Wright), Wiress (Amanda Plummer), and Mags (Lynn Cohen), who cannot speak. Her partner in her district is Finnick, who seems cocky and arrogant but does have a soft heart underneath. Beetee and Wiress are sort of nerds who are more tech savvy. And then there’s Johanna (brutally played by Jena Malone) who…really isn’t necessary at all. All of these characters were former winners of Hunger Games as well. Because of the plan to stifle talks of a new Revolution, Snow believes it’s time to make a distraction with a new Hunger Games. So it’s kind of like, Hunger Games: All Stars. Mark Burnett would be so proud. Oh, Woody Harrelson is back as well as Haymitch. Only he’s even less useful in this…but he still is always drinking. Have to love that. What else is there to do in a dystopian future?

The Hunger Games begin again and it becomes very familiar territory…although I did like the poison fog. It’s quite disgusting what happens to your skin if it engulfs you. But just when it starts getting too familiar, the game is changed. Literally. And what it sets up is a delicious looking conclusion…which we’ll have to experience in two parts, like “Harry Potter”.

Overall, this is a good continuation of the story. I don’t know that I’d call it a true sequel because it’s just another part of a clothesline story that’s inevitably going to conclude itself in the fourth film. It’s like calling “The Two Towers” a sequel. Just doesn’t sound right. Hey maybe if “The Lord of the Rings” was made now, there would be a “Return of the King Part 1” and “Part 2” as well. Can you imagine how long that would be? Probably as long as it was anyway…

“Catching Fire” is fun, and now that we’ve gotten it out of the way that it’s not anything more than that…I suppose it’s time to start just enjoying it.

My rating:á:-)

The Hunger Games

April 3, 2012 by  
Filed under Movies

Oh, those dystopian futures. We can’t seem to escape them in arts and entertainment. The future is always bleak, and it’s always violent. This has been visited many times in film, including the screen adaptation of “Nineteen Eighty-Four”, “Blade Runner”, and “Children of Men”. This time, it’s not adults killing each other, though, it’s kids. This plot is almost identical to the film (also a book) “Battle Royale”, but with a few changes. This, too, is based on a popular novel series, by Suzanne Collins. Its protagonist is a girl, Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence), who is known as a Tribute, when she “volunteers” for her sister who was selected in her District to partake in the annual Hunger Games, a tournament in which 24 Tributes (participants) compete in a battle to the death, and one sole survivor wins. That’s what I call March Madness.

The Districts are all controlled by the Capital, a place where the wealthy inhabitants look like a cross between a Star Trek convention and a Culture Club reunion. This Capital’s fascination with seeing adolescents fight to the death isn’t really explored in the film–except that I suppose it represents the harsh coldness of the ever oppressive government. This is what they’re willing to subject the people to. Oh, and it’s sort of “punishment” because at some point, one District decided to rebel against the Capital. So they control the Districts, which are all ravaged and starving, and they give these Hunger Games out as entertainment (they’re broadcast to all the Districts). They also have their own version of SportsCenter with two hosts, played amusingly and joyfully by Stanley Tucci and Toby Jones, who comment on the games while they go on, and Caesar (Tucci), interviews each participant before the Games.

Before the Games begin, there is a series of trainings by mentors, and Katniss is given Haymitch (Woody Harrelson), a former winner in District 12 and a drunk (but he serves more as just comic relief than anything else). He helps her along the way, and the boy from the same district, Peeta (Josh Hutcherson). During the interview process, Peeta reveals to Caesar on air that he has had a crush on Katniss, seemingly to spark a new interest in the two of them as they’re hyped as “star crossed lovers”.

The two of them initially don’t get along, but as Katniss recalls in a flashback, Peeta had tried to give her a loaf of bread in the rain. Instead of handing it to her, though, he merely threw it on the ground. She also mistrusts Peeta after his revelation of the crush he has because she thinks he’s only done it to gain favor by the audience. Haymitch is on Peeta’s side, however, and tells her to go along with it because it will help her chances as well.

Throughout the Games, Katniss survives by skills she had learned in her own homeland, including bow and hunting skills. She scores high during the training and is hunted by an alliance of other Districts. She escapes them with the help of Rue (Amandla Stenberg) who forms an alliance with her. Meanwhile, she has to remain faithful to Peeta as rules begin to change, and her own feelings for him do as well.

The performances by Lawrence and Hutcherson are what make this film so captivating. There are some inconsistencies in the plot and some elements that seem to set up for a bigger pay off and don’t–but the genuine chemistry between these two cannot be denied and take you from beginning to end cheering for each of them in your own way.

There are a few logical problems I had with the structure of the Games themselves: everyone at the start is right in a circle. Normally, in a game where you fight to the death to win, wouldn’t everyone just clamor at the center, grab the biggest weapon, and kill everyone they could? That sort of happens, but some people just escape into the woods, leaving themselves to the elements. It seems like if this were an option, it would be a keener idea to drop them off at random points and let them find each other. Besides, according to the Gamemakers rules, they can change just about everything in the Games’ little universe. Everything from starting forest fires to creating mean little dog-like animals seems to be at a finger’s length. So why not just randomly put them in different parts of the forest? I also didn’t see much audience participation. It’s said that they could help the Tributes by sending aid. But the only person who does that is Haymitch, for his own District. And then I thought, if he’s doing that, where are the other mentors for the other Tributes? One of them dies by eating poisonous berries. Wouldn’t their mentor have told them about things like that to watch out for? There are some other contrivances but I’d have to give away some of the secrets of the plot and I don’t want to do that.

The main reason is, for all the nitpicking I could do, I still found myself enjoying it, even though the biggest flaw with it was in its inherent theme that it seemed to be completely ambiguous on whether this dystopian future is good or not. Sure it’s violent and it’s sad to see some of the Tributes die–but on the other hand, sometimes you’re rooting for some for them to die. If you’re trying to make a statement against humankind’s violence, that pretty much betrays your message. If you’re trying to say that this is the way mankind is, then why give us any humanity to side with at all? In the end, you do of course side with Katniss and Peeta. And you certainly have no choice but to be against the cocky Tributes from other Districts who are out to get our heroes. But in a world where the Capital is the ultimate villain, it just seemed like the film merely poked fun at the outrageous way the “infotainment” motif is exploited at the expense of the human lives.

This coming from the director of films like “Pleasantville”, Gary Ross, is somewhat curious to me. In the past he’s had no problem making statements about politics (“Dave”) and the human condition (“Big”) in amusing, heartwarming ways. With “Pleasantville”, even harshly critical ways. But here in “The Hunger Games”, he, like the Capital, just lets these kids go out and slaughter each other without saying much about it. While the ride is enjoyable, it leaves you a bit hollow afterwards. And for something with a premiseáthat hasáthis much gravity, that’s a bit of a disappointment.

My rating: :-)

Zombieland

October 6, 2009 by  
Filed under Featured Content, Movies

“When there’s no more room in hell, the dead will walk the earth.”

That’s the famous line from George Romero’s classic horror satire “Dawn of the Dead”. I’m guessing hell isn’t full–or, that guy was totally wrong. There’s no such thing as zombies. Right?

Well, in the last few years, we’ve been introduced to a new kind of zombie. Richard Roeper, God’s gift to film criticism and wonderful hair, once stated that he likes this new angle of zombies–basically, the “this ain’t your daddy’s zombie!” attitude. Let’s make them fast and furious! But wait–were these zombies, that were “created” in “28 Days Later”–really zombies? I’ve had this debate so many times it makes *me* brain dead. No, they’re not zombies! At least, they’re not zombies in the Romero sense. They’re functioning people, they’re just “infected.” This worked in “28 Days Later” because like “Dawn of the Dead” and most of the “Dead” series, this was a social commentary rather than a straight up zombie movie.

The remake of “Dawn of the Dead” was a straight up zombie movie–and it got the idea all wrong, as fun as the movie was.

But here, in “Zombieland”, it kind of crosses the themes. We have people that are “infected” with some kind of virus that began with someone eating a rotten hamburger somewhere (I guess they had to come up with something…) and so they are somehow blood thirsty and want to eat people–you’d think they’d just have a hunger for lousy hamburgers, and just raid McDonald’s–but they’re also…zombies. They look dead, they have rings around their eyes, their mouths are full of disgusting ooze, and when they’re not rampaging, they’re making strange jerky motions that’s somewhere in between the zombies in “Night of the Living Dead” and Linda Blair in “The Exorcist”. In fact, in a way, you could say they look more like they’re possessed than “infected”.

But “Zombieland” is not really about plot. The movie is only about 81 minutes, so it gives you as thin a narrative as possible: a kid with many phobias is teamed up with an alpha male who loves Dale Earnhardt, and twinkies (inside joke about male sexuality/security? you decide), go on the road and wind up with two attractive and manipulative females and all of them end up being chased by zombies, and killing a lot of them.

There is also a very funny cameo by a great actor of our time–probably one of the greatest. And there’s a tie-in with the twinkie, for a moment.

So, the question is–does “Zombieland” work? Well, you have to look at it from this stand point to really understand what it’s getting at–do you find zombie killing funny? I don’t know that anyone’s really broached that before, not in a clear and crisp way. There always seems to be some kind of social satire muddled in the mix, and we have to wonder if we’re laughing at zombies, or ourselves.

Well, rest assured–there is no question here. The zombie killing is pretty hilarious. And Woody Harrelson as Talahassee (everyone’s name in the film represents where they’re from; i.e., Columbus, who is the kid with phobias) provides a lot of laughs because of his comic ability as an actor. Not every joke works, and some seem forced. There’s also a twist in something we learn about Talahassee’s past that seemed a bit morbid, especially when the scenes surrounding it are comparatively more comical. The pace of the film is a bit off, as well–sometimes it seems like we’re learning too much about people that are essentially placed in an arcade game like “House of the Dead”, just knocking off zombie after zombie, trying to come up with the Kill of the Week (but an old lady and a piano make the top of that list). You’d think for a film so short that clunkiness wouldn’t be an issue; but at times, some of the scenes do actually seem as though they drag.

As for the rest of the performances, Emma Stone (Wichita) is emerging as a fine young actress, and pulls of manipulative sexy just as well as she can pull of sweet and sensitive. Jesse Eisenberg (Columbus) proves you can out-Michael Cera Michael Cera, and Abigail Breslin (Little Rock) is good as well but I still couldn’t take her seriously as a schemer. Mike White (“The Good Girl”, “Chuck and Buck”, “School of Rock”) also makes an amusing appearance as a gas station attendant.

Probably the funniest element of the film comes from Columbus’ rules of survival: Cardio (rule #1), Beware of Bathrooms (rule#2), Seatbelts (rule #3), and Double tap (rule#4) among others. Each rule is given an example, and each time he performs a rule, a caption for said rule appears somewhere on the screen. It’s charming in its own way (and somewhat of an homage to Max Brooks’ “The Zombie Survival Guide”) and eventually, as always, some rules are meant to be broken.

Overall, it’s an enjoyable movie. It’s almost like a cute, dolled up Troma film. There’s just enough heart and just not enough gore, but it’s a good way to…ahem…kill…an hour and a half of your time.

And it really givesá you a craving for a Hostess Twinkie.

My rating: :-)