War for the Planet of the Apes (****1/2) is cleverly reverential


War for the Planet of the Apes – 2017

Director Matt Reeves
Written by Mark Bomback and Reeves
Starring Andy Serkis, Woody Harrelson, Steve Zahn, Karin Konoval, Terry Notary, Ty Olsson, Michael Adamthwaite, Toby Kebbell, Judy Greer, Sara Cannning, Max Lloyd-Jones, Devy Dalton, Aleks Paunovic, Amiah Miller, Gabriel Chavarria

In the opening scenes of War for the Planet of the Apes, we get a true vision of horrible war. Bullets and spears hurtling through the air, humans and apes dying as if life is not as precious as one would expect at the end of an apocalypse. This is not what I wanted to see in a movie, even if it was an incredible sequence, with harrowing sounds and visuals.

Fortunately, the film takes a turn shortly after this. Instead, what we get is a study of character for Caesar (Serkis) and a small band of his clan members as they work their way towards protection of their way of life, mixed with a little revenge. The result is a crowning achievement in many aspects, and the third consecutive original story that manages to pay reverence to the original series without repeating itself or taking the easy path to redemption.

Why are the apes a target? Well, the flu that knocked out humanity 15 years ago is called the simian flu, if that is any indication. I suppose those who survived the first wave  and didn’t talk to Jason Clarke’s Malcom at the end of the last film might have the idea that the apes are not friends, or even just ambivalent to human kind. Unfortunately, those who remain have too much access to guns and ammo and not enough room for compassion or, it seems, critical thought.

The leader of one group of humans, The Colonel (Harrison) is a few cans short of a six-pack of compassion. He performs an atrocity that sends Caesar in an apoplectic quest for vengeance. We get elements of Outlaw Josey Wales, Bridge on the River Kwai and, most ineptly, Apocalypse Now in the story. Caesar finds himself a captive to his grief and anger and then more directly a captive to the Colonel and his band of fanatics.

The Colonel, like everyone in the story to this point, has suffered some significant losses. He allowed this to affect him and through his charisma, create a militaristic sub-group of humanity that is subjugating apes as slaves, branding them with names like Donkey. He is making them work to build up a war in apprehension of a coming conflict with another band of humans.

When Caesar comes across the reality of the situation, he is vexed as to whether he should seek revenge or help his kind escape the camp altogether when the plans become clear.

It is to the filmmakers credit that we get to see the effect that the decisions of Caesar and his group make have ramifications. If it were another time for Hollywood, we might see more happiness in the poetic symmetry. It is tempting to think that this is following a trend we’ve seen in movies lately, with Rogue One, Logan, etc. In this case one needs to take into account the trend that this series has taken has already been darker than most. The evolution seems to fit.

Along the way, Caesar and his crew pick up a few strays. One of them is a mute human girl, named Nova (Miller). Fans of the original series will make the connection. Her presence is a necessary one in the development of Ceasar. His mindset always seems to veer away from the wisdom of his closest friend, and Orangutan named Maurice (once more brilliantly portrayed by Konoval). He’s never so far away that he doesn’t let his wise friend bring the little one along.

More complex is the character of Bad Ape (Zahn), who steals his way into the group telling stories that have a tinge of idiocy and maybe a little insanity mixed in. His performance is engaging and layered due to some astounding effects and Zahn’s great voice work.

Another great holdover from Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is Red. He’s one of the Ape lackeys here, used as muscle and to be demoralized by the humans. His general antagonism seems to come from a place of being out-of-place wherever he is by this point. His existence is a sad, hopeless and angry barometer for Caesar. In the contrast, we see how significant a character Ceasar is for the development of simian kind.

Special mention must be made for Serkis, who pushes his artistry to another level. We’ve seen the cycle of a great character from birth to where he is now and it has been a remarkable journey. Serkis’ eyes wears every step of this journey like a weary badge. It really is a remarkable achievement when one watches all three films in succession. I hope we’ve gotten to the point in recognizing real acting when we can take what we’ve gotten from this remarkable actor, not only vocally, but through his recorded movements and those incredible eyes.

My personal favorite is still Maurice, though. Through it all, Konoval’s gentle approach has fit completely in sync with what the character needed to be to complete the development of Caesar’s (as well, her own) character. Such is the look of a male Bornean Orangutan that she could not play a female. Her subtle etching of the character is so affecting though, I don’t know if someone with testosterone could have pulled it off. Their combined performance in the last act is hauntingly beautiful.

Special mention needs to be made of Michael Giacchino’s astounding score. I have not been so moved by the music of a film since perhaps Christopher Gordon’s Master and Commander. The titles of each tune are pretty silly, but how the music works within the film is beautiful.

If there is one drawback in the film, it would have to be Harrelson’s Colonel. He’s definitely the least effectively drawn nemesis in the series. They paint on the cruelty in big heavy strokes. His humanity is limited to one picture of a little boy. It’s not enough compared to the nuance they worked so hard to achieve in the first 2 films. Before now, we didn’t root for humans to die. We wanted both groups to survive and thrive.

What Matt Reeves has created is remarkable. In directing the last two parts of a trilogy, he’s made three completely different stories and one overarching development of a character that should stand out in cinematic history. If there is one thing that the series should be embraced for, it is that we have finally pushed special effects to the point where they become an afterthought to the story that is being developed because they are so incredibly good. Bad Ape, Maurice, Blue Eyes and Caesar are merely the tip of the iceberg. I found myself thinking less and less about how they did it and more about the story than ever.

This will not be everyone’s cup of tea. It is a tragedy, to be sure, with moments of light. Not everyone will find the survival of simian kind a rooting point as humans suffer through not one, but two waves of contagion that first wipes them out and will eventually take away their voices.

Yes, they worked that in from the original series too. Remarkable. Considering the stench that the original gave off in every way, it is incredible to consider that it was good enough and groundbreaking in its own way. It’s nearly unwatchable now. But for this, we have to be thankful.

(****1/2 out of *****)


Gold (***1/2) is a beautiful loser


Gold – 2016

Director  Stephen Gaghan
Patrick Massett, John Zinman
Matthew McConaughey, Édgar Ramírez, Bryce Dallas Howard, Corey Stoll, Toby Kebbell, Craig T. Nelson, Bruce Greenwood

The feeling in watching Matthew McConaughey working and sweating his way through every scene of Gold is that we are watching a story that feels like his own. The vision of Kenny Wells to the outside world is that of one who got away with something and struck it rich with an illusion. Inside his heart is true and he works as hard as anyone, even if he feels like he will never get credit for earning his fortune.  To anyone who has followed McConaughey since his first big role in A Time to Kill will find this story very familiar.

This is what draws me to his performance in what could be considered quite average fare. There is nothing wrong with this movie and it’s script. It definitely wasn’t considered at award time. McConaughey is at his very best, though from the moment he first takes the screen all the way through the end. He inhabits the screen like someone on his desperate last breaths, somehow sure that the legacy of his father (Nelson in a passing cameo) will be proved as legitimate through his own success.

As a down and out market prospector, Wells has a dream and quite literally hocks the last bit of gold his girlfriend has left to make it happen. The success does come, but it is not easy. Eventually bigger fish come in tor make their stamp and he sneaks past them like a dying man whistling past the graveyard.

The story is loosely based on the Bre-X mining scandal. For those who know what happened, there is still plenty to enjoy. Particularly good are Ramírez and Howard, as Wells partner and longtime girlfriend, respectively. I have never noticed as good a performance out of the latter. Indeed, this is the first time I have enjoyed seeing her on screen.

The story and performance of the day is McConaughey, though. If he’s been better, he’s never been as invested in a role so completely. He goes the full DeNiro here, making himself into a repulsive has been with a heart of gold.

The story plays like something that could have been made in another time, when more time and effort was poured into character and less into any sort of flash. This feels like the kind of film one produces when they’ve won the cache to spread their wings a little.

While it’s never dull, the story is steady and the scenery feels at once wearying and fresh. Gaghan has a deft touch with drama, but nothing here feels overbearing aside from the strain Wells gut puts on a pair of pants.

If you like McConaughey, then watch this film. If you are on the bubble and think he just may have gotten lucky, watch this film. Tell me if it doesn’t make you feel like he’s finally proved himself worthwhile.

(***1/2 out of *****)

Kong: Skull Island (****) great taste and it’s sort of fulfilling


Kong: Skull Island 2017

Director Jordan Vogt-Roberts
Screenplay Dan Gilroy, Max Borenstein, Derek Connolly
Starring Tom Hiddleston, Samuel L. Jackson, John Goodman, Brie Larson, Jing Tian, Toby Kebbell, John Ortiz, Corey Hawkins, Jason Mitchell, Shea Whigham, Thomas Mann, Terry Notary, John C. Reilly

I was 5 years old when they released King Kong with Jeff Bridges and Jessica Lange. I saw later as part of  a drive in double bill with Orca, The Killer Whale. I must have thought enough of it then, because I got a lunch pail of the movie and carried it to school for half of my elementary school years. Watching it now I wonder how much the film must have been a torture for my parents to watch. It’s unbearable and quite impossible to imagine how it was nominated for any awards. It is quite easy to imagine why Lange took 3 years off before hitting the big screen again.

It was this film that was in my mind when I watched Peter Jackson’s overzealous 2005 take. I loved the film on the big screen, but it’s easy to overlook that unnecessary 1.5 extra hours when you are not sure when the next fight with another monster will occur. The effects were as excellent as one could expect. The dialogue, story and acting for everyone outside of Naomi Watts and Adrien Brody were all pretty bad.

When 2014 brought a new Godzilla and Legendary pictures moved the Kong franchise from Universal to Warner Bros., it was finally revealed that there would be a Monsterverse which would eventually bring Kong and Godzilla together after a few films.

So far, so good. Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla was the best version of the film in our generation, even if it wrought so much destruction as to be numbing. Now Voght-Roberts has made an accessible Kong without dragging the big ape’s ass back to the mainland. The best thing about it is, we know it can’t happen for at least another 40 years in cinematic time.

Kong’s Skull Island is the desired destination of Goodman’s Bill Randa, Special Government agent in the Monarch division. After convincing a senator (played by Richard Jenkins) to help him piggyback on an expedition to the secluded island, he also secures the services of a military unit on it’s way back from the freshly completed Vietnam action lead by United States Army Lieutenant Colonel Packard (Jackson). Then after securing Hiddleston as James Conrad, a former British Special Forces guide and Brie Larson as Mason Weaver, an “anti” war photographer, Randa and his partner Brooks (Hawkins)  head out.

Good God, those are a lot of characters. And that isn’t even the half of it. Even so, Gilroy, Connolly and Borenstein are able to successfully weave them into a story that is cohesive, comprehensible and doesn’t even skimp on the monsters.

That’s because we don’t waste that much time getting to the action. Everyone knows that they have to float to the island. We all know it’s shaped like a skull, sort of. Everyone knows there is an atmospheric cloud preventing the outside world easy access. Let’s get in there and start throwing bombs, dammit!

What we find out after the bombs fly is that big monsters don’t like bombs, and this island has a hollow core that hides things. There is some science behind it which makes sense to Randa and Brooks, but the important thing to remember is that it doesn’t take long after they start knocking for someone to answer the door in a bad mood.

This rough reception puts Kong at odds with Packer, who just lost one war and damn sure isn’t in the mood to lose another. The cast is split up though. So while Jackson and his military brethren try to recoup one of their lost compadres (and the weaponry nearby) the rest of the team goes about finding more about the island.

The first thing they discover are some natives. They all have paint on their faces and look like they haven’t bathed in a while. Reilly’s Marlow, a pilot shot down in WWII has gone even longer without bathing. Fortunately, he still speaks English enough to give Conrad and Weaver the lowdown.

In layman terms, Kong is good. Skullcrawlers bad. In case you have a hard time remembering, the latter have inset eyes that are almost invisible and Kong’s peepers are so deep and wide, one can almost imagine he’s going sing a sad song.

From here, we know the good guys have to find their way to the proverbial “rendezvous” point and there will be at least two or more attempts on Kong’s life, because…revenge.

It’s a good, if predictable movie about giant stuff in a lost world. None of the characters embarrass themselves and for such a large cast, we really get a sense of a lot of them, even if the growth is minimal.

If anything, we don’t see enough of Kong. After an amazing start, he is mainly around to drift in and out of the scenery until the last 15 minutes.The animation is quite remarkable, though, and thank God he doesn’t feel the need to start climbing when the bullets fly.

The true highlight of the film is clunky old Reilly. His inherent goofiness is a huge positive in that it brings out some personality in everyone else, including Hiddleston, who by now must have forgotten what it is like to play Loki.

The scenery is breathtaking, even if there is no real sense of direction in the film. The people cover so much terrain, one never knows if they are aware that it might be easier to always stay in near the boat.

There are many stories strewn throughout the wasteland of Skull Island. There is a point near the end, where we see a collection of ships that have been left abandoned there through hundreds of years. What happened to all of those people?  It would be nice to get a hint of just a few of those stories.

This one is going to have to do for now. It’s a good enough start that doesn’t overstay its welcome. This alone makes it the best one yet.

(**** out of *****)

Fantastic Four (***) – Time spent in the negative zone


Fantastic Four – 2015

Director Josh Trank
Writers Trank and Simon Kinberg
Starring Kate Mara, Miles Teller, Simon Kinberg, Michael B. Jordan, Jamie Bell, Toby Kebbell, Reg E. Cathey, Tim Blake Nelson

The politics of Hollywood perspective mean that often times below average movies are given a free pass for not being better (see Transformers series) and average movies are decimated by the weight of expectations. Fantastic Four is a great example of the latter. In the third attempt to make chicken salad out of a storyline too familiar to feel fresh, 20th Century Fox gave the reigns of the old franchise to a young director, hoping for a fresh new take. Then when they saw the freshness of that take, panicked, ripped the movie out of his hands, costing him his chance at joining the Star Wars universe and maybe more. All because they don’t want to give the property back to Marvel. Good times.

Let’s get it straight: Fantastic Four is not a bad film. It’s just not a good one either. It’s easy to see what they wanted to carry out, it just looks like something got in the way of that goal. It is well known that Fox gave Trank’s version of the film a complete overhaul (most of which takes place at the “One Year Later” mark) without consulting him. Then they let word out that Trank exhibited “erratic behavior” on the set, according to the old, reliable anonymous sources. The actors in the film seemed to think things went alright.

Taken as a whole, we get a different vision of the formation of the group, which I was welcome too. The character stories seem a little more interesting, for as much as we are allowed to see them. The interpersonal relationships are more hinted at than anything. Doom is a much more interesting character in the build up than he was ever allowed to be in the Tim Story take. I did like where they were going on the school / orphanage for brilliant minds. They left Ben Grimm behind. Makes sense, but it would have been better had he joined the military. Sue and Johnny Storm as siblings by adoption. I can buy that. Dr. Franklin Storm as a driving force is good but I wish they had given him more power, more genius himself. Only Tim Blake Nelson’s Dr. Harvey Allen is handled poorly, although the meat of his scenes might have been reshoots.

It is unclear what was meant to happen in the Negative Zone, and because I don’t want to ruin whatever semblance of plot they have for the last 1/3 of the movie, I will not discuss. Other than to say it is underwhelming. And I blame the studio for that.

There is no one guiding the FF ship, no overall vision and that is abundantly clear. The franchise is a tough sell when the best version of their story to ever be released was Pixar’s The Incredibles. If they don’t give this decent cast the sequel they deserve, then the studio should have the property taken from them. I am done with new versions of the Fantastic Four from 20th Century Fox.

(*** out of *****)