WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES (2017) – The Best of The New APES Movies

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war_for_the_planet_of_the_apes_poster

The new PLANET OF THE APES series keeps getting better and better.

RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES (2011) was an okay reboot, solid yet uninspiring. Its sequel DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES (2014) was better. I liked it but I didn’t love it.

Now comes WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES (2017) a thoroughly engrossing tale that is equal parts futuristic science fiction, epic adventure, and prisoner of war drama. All three parts work well to comprise a story that is captivating from start to finish, so much so, that this third film is clearly the best entry of the series thus far.

Of course, it helps to have a talented director at the helm.  Matt Reeves, who also directed DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES, is one of the more talented directors working today. He’s directed some of my favorite horror movies in recent years, films like CLOVERFIELD (2008) and LET ME IN (2010), and now WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES. I only wish he’d make more movies.

When WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES opens, we find Caesar (Andy Serkis) and his band of apes still hiding in the woods, still trying to avoid the humans who are out to conquer them.  This time around, the advancing human military is led by a charismatic officer known as The Colonel (Woody Harrelson).

A small military unit locates the apes and attack, but they are defeated.  Caesar spares the lives of a couple of prisoners and sends them back as a peace-offering, but this doesn’t stop the Colonel, who returns and raids the apes’ camp, killing Caesar’s wife and son.

Found out, the apes have to move, but Caesar announces that he’s not accompanying them, as he is intent on finding and killing the Colonel.   Eventually, all the apes, Caesar included, are captured by the Colonel’s forces, setting the stage for the second half of the movie, which plays out as a riveting prisoner of war tale, where the apes attempt to plan a daring escape, even as another military contingent moves in, one that is at odds with the Colonel and plans on wiping out all the occupants at the base, including the apes.

There is so much to like about WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES.  I liked how Caesar evolved here.  In the first film, he barely spoke, saying one word here, one word there. In the second film, he spoke more, but not entirely fluently.  Here, he speaks effortlessly, which makes him an even stronger character.

The storyline of the disease which wiped out humans and gave intelligence to apes continues to evolve in this movie and remains compelling.  This time around, we learn that the disease is changing, that the remaining humans are gradually losing the ability to speak, and are slowly becoming more beast-like, while the apes are becoming more intelligent.  This plot point hearkens back to the original series, where apes were intelligent, and humans were mute animals.

We first get a hint of this change when Caesar and friends find a young girl (Amiah Miller) who cannot speak.  Orangutan Maurice (Karin Konoval) eventually names her Nova, in a nod to the Linda Harrison character from the 1968 original film PLANET OF THE APES.

And more apes than just the ones with Caesar were affected, as they meet another chimpanzee who goes by the name Bad Ape (Steve Zahn) and who tells them his story.

There are a lot of nods to the original series here.  The soldiers wear the symbols for Alpha and Omega on their helmets, which is a nod to the Alpha/Omega bomb which destroyed the Earth in BENEATH THE PLANET OF THE APES (1970).  The line is used, “the only good ape is a dead ape,” which is a reference to General Ursus’ line “The only good human is a dead human,” also from BENEATH THE PLANET OF THE APES.

Again, there’s the character of Nova, and I liked how they came up with the name, as she finds a grille from a Chevy Nova.  Also, when Maurice says her name, “Nova,” he says it the same way and with the same cadence as Charlton Heston said it in BENEATH THE PLANET OF THE APES, so much so that I wonder if they dubbed in Heston’s voice here.

Speaking of Maurice, his name is a nod to the actor Maurice Evans who played the orangutan Dr. Zaius in the original films.  And Caesar’s little son is named Cornelius, who was the character played by Roddy McDowall in the original films, and in those films Cornelius was Caesar’s father.

There are also just some funny monkey references. The back of one of the soldier’s helmets reads BEDTIME FOR BONZO, a reference to the Ronald Reagan movie, a comedy which featured a chimpanzee. Also, the apes who work for the Colonel are called “donkeys,” a reference to Donkey Kong.

The special effects are amazing. The apes look phenomenal. They’re so good it’s easy to forget that nearly every character in this movie is a CGI creation.  The only main human character is Woody Harrelson’s Colonel, and the rest of the humans are nameless soldiers, and yet the film doesn’t suffer for it at all. You don’t watch this movie and feel like you’re watching an animated cartoon.  These characters seem genuine and real, more so than some of the human characters we see in other movies.  And their story is compelling.  You really do feel for the apes and want them to escape from the prison.

Andy Serkis, who’s become the king of motion capture performances, is excellent once again here as Caesar. I don’t think they give Oscars yet for this category, but if they did, he should get one.  And he’s not alone here.

Both Karin Konoval as Maurice and Terry Notary as Caesar’s other loyal friend Rocket have also been in all three APES movies, and they’ve been excellent each time as well.  Also of interest, both Serkis and Notary have played King Kong.  Serkis played Kong in the Peter Jackson remake KING KONG (2005), and Notary played Kong in KONG: SKULL ISLAND (2017).

Two newcomers also really stand out.  Steve Zahn as Bad Ape nearly steals the movie with his humorous and touching performance as the ape who had survived on his own all these years before meeting Caesar and his band of apes.  The best part about Bad Ape is that he’s funny without being annoying, and he’s scared without being a coward.  He steps up when needed.

Likewise, young Amiah Miller is superb as Nova, in a role that is even more impressive considering she doesn’t speak any lines as Nova cannot talk.  Her scenes with Caesar are especially moving.  Once Nova and then Bad Ape enter the storyline, the film really takes off.  Miller reminded me somewhat of a very young Amanda Seyfried.

And Woody Harrelson does what he has to do as the evil Colonel.  The role isn’t as fleshed out as the apes’ characters, but it doesn’t really need to be.  He’s the villain, and Harrelson gives the guy real presence, so much so that things always feel disturbing when he’s on-screen. And we do get some background on him, as we learn what happened to his son.

The script by Mark Bomback and director Reeves is excellent.  I loved the story it tells, and the ape characters are all fleshed out to the point where you forget you’re watching CGI creations.  I especially liked the story, which is essentially divided into three parts. The first part picks up where DAWN left off, and features apes and humans battling in the jungle.  The second part becomes an epic adventure, where the apes migrate from the jungle, and where Caesar and his small band of friends go off on their own across beaches and eventually into a wintry mountain terrain as they seek out the Colonel.  It’s this sequence where they find Nova and meet Bad Ape.

And then there’s the third part, the gripping grueling prisoner of war tale, where Caesar must lead the apes on a daring escape.  This part plays like the classic war movies of yesteryear, films like STALAG 17 (1953) and THE GREAT ESCAPE (1963).  With each chapter of the story, the film gets stronger, as each story is better than the previous one.

I’m a huge Matt Reeves fan, and he does a phenomenal job here.  His films CLOVERFIELD and LET ME IN are among my favorite horror movies period.  WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES now joins that list.  Of course, the true test for Reeves is his next movie, as he’s writing and directing the upcoming THE BATMAN, the standalone Batman film starring Ben Affleck. Good luck, Matt!

And WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES features yet another powerful music score by Michael Giacchino, who we just talked about last week as he scored SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING (2017).  I liked his score for APES here even better than his SPIDER-MAN score.  It reminded me a lot of the score he wrote for LET ME IN.  It’s potent, militaristic, and haunting.

I really liked WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES. Everything about it works.

It’s easily the best of the rebooted APES series.

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STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS (2015) Brings Home The Memories

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star wars force awakens poster

STAR WARS:  THE FORCE AWAKENS (2015)

Movie Review

By Michael Arruda

If there’s one thing that STAR WARS:  THE FORCE AWAKENS does well, it’s that it hearkens back to the original trilogy and if you liked those movies, you’re sure to enjoy this one as well.  Of course, it does a few other things well, too.

STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS takes place 30 years after the events in RETURN OF THE JEDI (1983).  As the familiar golden words on the screen at the beginning of the movie explain, Luke Skywalker has disappeared, and both the evil First Order and the feisty Rebels are looking for him.  A map exists which shows the hiding place of Luke.  Whoever finds the map will find Luke, and so the race is on.  That in a nutshell is the plot of STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS.

When the movie opens, a rebel pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) possesses the map, but he’s captured by the First Order, the baddies in this one who look and act exactly like the Evil Empire in the first trilogy.  Before he’s captured, Poe slips the map to his droid BB-8 and tells it to run.  [Sound familiar?  Princess Leia did the same thing with R2D2 in the original STAR WARS (1977).  There are lot of homage moments like this in the THE FORCE AWAKENS.  For the most part, I enjoyed them.  However, this ploy also works against the film’s originality.  More on this later.]

Poe is captured and interrogated by one of the leaders of the First Order, a Darth Vader wannabe, Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), but with the help of a former Storm trooper Finn (John Boyega) Poe escapes.

Meanwhile, a young woman Rey (Daisy Ridley) crosses paths with BB-8 and befriends the droid.  When the First Order arrives in search of BB-8 and the map, Rey and the droid are helped by Finn.  They receive further assistance when old friends Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew) arrive, and they bring the three back to the Rebels, now led by former Princess and now General Leia (Carrie Fisher).

The battle lines are drawn.  Both sides are searching for Luke Skywalker, while at the same time the Rebels are forced to defend the galaxy against another powerful planet-destroying weapon possessed by the First Order, a weapon that makes the Death Star in the original STAR WARS seem puny in comparison.  Of course.

STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS is clearly an homage to the original trilogy, especially to the first film in the series, STAR WARS. I had a love/hate relationship with this.

For the most part, the homage style works.  I absolutely loved how director J.J. Abrams re-introduced all the original characters.  Everyone- Han Solo, Princess Leia, Luke Skywalker, Chewbacca, C3PO, R2D2- receives a dramatic entrance.  Heck, even the Millennium Falcon gets a heroes-welcome first scene.  This all works for me and provides the fans with plenty of loud ovation moments.  It reminded me a lot of when I saw STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE (1979) years ago at the movies, the way that film gave each main character a dramatic entrance, as that was the first time those folks were appearing on the large screen.

However, where this style faltered was in the construct of the story’s plot. In STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS, once again the First Order is in possession of a planet destroying weapon, and once more the Rebels detect a weakness in its construction, and so they come up with a plan to sneak in and destroy it.  This plot point is right out of both STAR WARS and RETURN OF THE JEDI.  You would think that at this point the bad guys would have come up with a different weapon or would have eliminated these weaknesses.  They haven’t won yet.

While this may sound like nitpicking, a different plot point in these movies would be most welcome.  It’s like when Lex Luthor shows up as the villain in all the SUPERMAN movies.  Nothing against Lex, but can we have a different villain once in a while?

Likewise, I realize that it’s the STAR WARS universe and the expectation is that things are somewhat similar.  I have no problem with the style and the looks being similar, but in terms of plot they need to shake things up a bit.  Not all film series have to do this.  Take the ROCKY series for example.  You expect those films to end with a climactic boxing match.  That makes sense.  Rocky is a boxer.  But the STAR WARS films take place in outer space and have entire galaxies as their canvas.  The plot points should be endless.

I really enjoyed the cast in STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS, and the film combines both the old and the new seamlessly.

Of the original cast members, Han Solo (Harrison Ford) gets the most screen time, and since Han has always been one of the most interesting and compelling characters in the STAR WARS universe, this is a good thing.  Harrison Ford is once again excellent as Han Solo, and he shows that at 73 he hasn’t lost much in terms of his charisma and acting chops.

Carrie Fisher as General Leia is in the film less, and based on her few scenes, this is also a good thing.  Of course, we don’t see a lot of Luke, since a key plot point of the film is that he’s disappeared, but since his name is in the credits, it’s a good bet he will show up at some point.

That being said, this was another plot point of STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS that I did not enjoy.  Luke Skywalker is the single most important character from the original series, and now we have a new STAR WARS movie which hearkens back to the original, and as a key plot point, the film chooses to have it so that Skywalker has vanished?  I don’t know about that.  To borrow a title from that other science fiction series, I would have preferred that this movie not played out like STAR WARS:  THE SEARCH FOR LUKE, which is a roundabout way of saying I wanted more Luke in this movie.

Of course, what truly helps this movie is that the new cast members are for the most part excellent.  Daisy Ridley nearly steals the movie as Rey, the new heroine who promises to be the next big character as this series progresses.  She’s that good.  Other than Harrison Ford’s return as Han Solo, Ridley was my favorite part of this movie.

John Boyega is nearly as good as Finn, the former Storm trooper now turned rebel hero.  He’s likeable, humorous, and gutsy, and he fits in perfectly in the STAR WARS universe.

I didn’t think Oscar Isaac fared as well as super duper pilot Poe Dameron.  He’s likable enough, but he’s more one-dimensional than the other two characters.  Perhaps he will be developed more later.  We saw Isaac earlier this year in the science fiction film EX MACHINA (2015).  His co-star in that film, Domhnall Gleeson, also stars here in STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS as one of the villains, General Hux.

And this is another place where I thought STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS had some problems.  I just wasn’t all that impressed with the villains in this one.  The main villain, Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) just didn’t do anything for me.  I found him whiny and wishy-washy, about as effective a villain as Loki in the Marvel superhero movies.

With his mask, he’s supposed to be a younger Darth Vader type, and in fact he is related to the character— another thing that strains disbelief in this film- everyone seems to be related to each other.  Is the universe really that small?— and some have cited his inner struggle— he’s not yet completely sold on the Dark side—as a compelling character trait.  I just found it weak and juvenile.  Choose a side and get on with it.  Hamlet, he wasn’t.

Plus, he takes off his mask at will.  What’s up with that?  What is the mask’s purpose, then?  A fashion statement?  To make him look scary?  Darth Vader wore his mask because without it he would die.  Kylo Ren wears his mask because he’s afraid to be evil without it, I guess.  I have to admit, whenever he took off his mask, I thought of Rick Moranis as Dark Helmet  in Mel Brooks’ SPACEBALLS (1987) and wanted to laugh.

The other villain in the film, Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis)— how’s that for a presumptuous name?  He’s the Supreme Leader because name says so, not because of anything he does in the movie!— is reduced to appearing as a holographic image a la the Emperor in the original series.  He gets to say ominous lines to Kylo Ren, but that’s about it.

Snoke is played by Andy Serkis, who is the top guy in the movies when it comes to motion capture performances, as he has hit homeruns with his performances as Gollum in THE LORD OF THE RINGS series, as Caesar in the new PLANET OF THE APES series, and he even made for a decent King Kong in Peter Jackson’s 2005 remake of KING KONG.  But here he’s reduced to a stationary holographic image.

Nuff said.

Chewbacca, C3PO, and R2D2 all enjoy fine moments, and the new droid BB8 is also very enjoyable.  One more new cast member who makes an impression is Max Kanata (Lupita Nyong’o).  Kanata is a CGI created creature with wide eyes who enjoys some key scenes, and Nyong’o makes the most of her brief screen time.

For the most part, I enjoyed the directorial work of J.J. Abrams here.  He has made a crowd pleaser, and STAR WARS fans should walk away from the theater satisfied.  It’s clearly a homage and it works.  It brought me back to the time when I watched the original three films at the theater, and this was a lot of fun.  STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS is a much more satisfying STAR WARS vehicle than the previous three films, the prequel trilogy of the 90s and early 200s.

And the film looks great.  Again, it hearkens back to the original series, and really captures the original look of the first STAR WARS.  And while there were some cool scenes, I can’t say that they blew me away, since nearly everything that happens in this movie was very familiar.

The screenplay by director Abrams, Lawrence Kasdan who also wrote both THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK and RETURN OF THE JEDI, and Michael Arndt successfully creates nostalgia but falters somewhat when it comes to original storytelling.  At times, STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS almost plays like a straight re-boot of the original STAR WARS.  I would have preferred it had this new film taken a far more original route.  Is it asking too much that the evil First Order develop a new way of doing things rather than creating yet another planet destroying weapon with a glaring weakness?  Is it asking too much that the good guys face some other conflict instead of trying to destroy another Death Star?  There are far too many exciting plot points for a STAR WARS movie not to seek them out.

John Williams once again wrote the music score, and once more it’s a phenomenal soundtrack.

STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS is a rousing tour de force, full of STAR WARS nostalgia and a genuine crowd-pleaser, but it lacks originality and as such offers nothing new, other than new younger characters who face the same adversities our original characters faced in the original trilogy.  So, yes, STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS  also plays like STAR WARS:  THE NEXT GENERATION.

While it’s all unabashedly fun, it’s also completely predictable.

May the Force Be With You.  Again.

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DVD Review: RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES Lacks Vision

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Rise of the Planet of the Apes poster

DVD Review:  RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES (2011)

by

Michael Arruda

Will I finally get a rise out of RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES (2011)?

Unlike a lot of other people, I wasn’t too thrilled with RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES when it opened in theaters a couple of years ago.

RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES is the reboot/reimagining of the classic PLANET OF THE APES series begun with the iconic film from 1968 starring Charlton Heston and Roddy McDowall, a film so popular it led to four sequels and two short-lived television series, one of them animated.  During the early 1970s, PLANET OF THE APES was all the rage, as popular as STAR WARS would later become, and I remember as a kid absolutely loving it.  I was caught up in APES mania.  Of course, the whole thing was based on a novel, Planet of the Apes (1963), by Pierre Boulle, and I’d have to say that this is a case where the 1968 film was actually better than the book on which it was based.

Two summers ago, I was really looking forward to seeing RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES, the first APES film since Tim Burton’s dreadful remake in 2001.  Word of mouth in 2011 was very good, and so I went into the theater with high expectations.  Sadly, when all was said and done, I wasn’t that wowed by it.  I found it all rather average, and its best scenes were given away in the film’s trailers.

So, two years later, I figured it was time to watch it again, to see if my opinion had changed, which is why I caught up with RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES on DVD recently.

The verdict, after seeing it again?  Truthfully, I liked it even less this time around!

The basic problem I have with RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES, and the main reason I don’t like it as much as the films in the original series, is it lacks imagination.  The original series had at its core a story about apes evolving in Earth’s future and eventually taking over the planet once humankind had destroyed itself.  These apes were played by actors in make-up by John Chambers, who won an Oscar for his efforts, and there was a sense of awe about these creatures that was frightening.  The apes from the original series were scary.  Charlton Heston in the first movie didn’t shriek, “It’s a madhouse!” for nothing.

In RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES, the mood and environment is just a little too sterile for my tastes.  Everything is just a bit too neat and tidy.  It’s not scary, never did I feel all that uncomfortable, and it’s certainly not that imaginative.

RISE is sort of a reboot of the fourth film in the series, CONQUEST OF THE PLANET OF THE APES (1972) which tells the story of how Caesar, the son of Cornelius and Zira, two chimps from the future, leads the present day apes in their revolt against humans.

Here, Caesar isn’t from the future.  His special cognitive abilities come from a super drug given to his mother by a scientist Will Rodman (James Franco), in his attempt to create a drug to treat Alzheimers.

This is the main reason this film doesn’t work for me.  Caesar’s story here is just too ordinary.  It lacks imagination, creativity, and vision.  At its core, it’s really a variation of the “man loses pet” plot.  Will allows Caesar to live in his home, they develop a bond, but things go wrong, and Caesar is taken away from Will.  Caesar then uses his super cognitive abilities to lead the apes in his compound to revolt and escape, seeking their freedom.  Blah.

The script by Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver never gets inside Caesar’s head.  We never really know what’s it like to be Caesar.  Compare this to Roddy McDowall’s performance as Caesar in CONQUEST OF THE PLANET OF THE APES and BATTLE FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES (1973) and you’ll find in those movies that Caesar, brought to life by McDowall, is a complicated and ultimately very heroic and likable character.  This Caesar is just a smart monkey.

The true star here is the film’s CGI effects, and Andy Serkis as Caesar does an admirable job with the facial expressions, but it’s nothing we haven’t seen him do before.  He was just as good as King Kong in Peter Jackson’s KING KONG (2006) and of course he was even better and had much more personality as Gollum in the Peter Jackson LORD OF THE RINGS movies.

Here, Serkis looks great as Caesar, and at times I felt bad for Caesar, but I was never all that interested in him.

The rest of the cast also disappoints.  James Franco, who was so captivating in OZ THE GREAT AND POWERFUL (2013) is flat here as scientist Will Rodman.  He doesn’t come close to carrying this movie.  David Oyelowo as bad guy Steven Jacobs and Freida Pinto as love interest Caroline Aranha are both boring, and Brian Cox, almost always fun to watch, is wasted here in a small do nothing role as the guy who operates the ape compound.

The best performance in the movie belongs to John Lithgow as Will’s father Charles, who’s suffering from Alzheimers disease.  It’s a very sympathetic performance, but this film isn’t called RISE OF THE ALZEIMERS PATIENTS, is it?

Director Rupert Wyatt made a movie that looks really good but is seriously lacking in the imagination department.  What exactly is Caesar thinking? What is it like to be Caesar?  What do the other apes think about Caesar?  What’s their reaction when he speaks?  None of these questions are answered with any degree of satisfaction.

The ending is also unrealistic.  In this day and age, there’s no way I believe that a group of apes make it through San Francisco without all being shot dead.  Sorry.   I just don’t buy the grand escape.

RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES is technologically satisfying—it makes great use of its CGI effects— but that’s about it.  On both the intellectual and emotional levels, the film doesn’t cut it.  I wasn’t wowed by its story, its characters, or its plot, and it never really drew me into its world of its very super smart ape.  For that matter, I never really had a feel for just how smart Caesar really was.  As the movie goes on, he seems more angry than smart.

A sequel is scheduled for a 2014 release.  I’m not exactly going ape over the news.

—Michael