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

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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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THE EDGE OF SEVENTEEN (2016) – Comedy-Drama Captures Intensity of Teen Years

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The best movies, regardless of genre, are based on truth.

And that’s what makes THE EDGE OF SEVENTEEN (2016), a coming of age comedy-drama about seventeen year old Nadine (Hailee Steinfeld),  so enjoyable.  It comes across as oh-so-true.

Nadine is the ugly duckling in her family, forever living in the shadow of her near-perfect older brother Darian (Blake Jenner).  Through voice-over narration, we follow Nadine’s difficult childhood, from dealing with school bullies to butting heads with her mother Mona (Kyra Sedgwick) who gets along much better with her son Darian.  Nadine’s one champion is her father Tom (Eric Keenleyside), but in a tragic moment symbolic of her entire childhood, he suffers a fatal stroke behind the wheel of their car while Nadine watches helplessly from the passenger seat.

As she turns seventeen, the one positive for Nadine is her relationship with her best friend Krista (Haley Lu Richardson).  The two girls are inseparable, and being with Krista is the one time Nadine feels happy.  This all comes to a dramatic halt when suddenly Krista starts dating Nadine’s brother Darian.  For Nadine, this is a betrayal and is something she cannot handle.

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Nadine (Hailee Steinfeld) and her best friend Krista (Haley Lu Richardson)

Now feeling absolutely alone, Nadine finds herself at her lowest point ever.  While she continually pours out her troubles to her stoic seemingly non-caring teacher Mr. Bruner (Woody Harrelson) who in spite of his constant snarky comments is always there to listen to her, she adores the hunky Nick (Alexander Calvert) from afar.  She also finds new hope in quirky Erwin (Hayden Szeto), a fellow student who is obviously very interested in her.  Trouble is, she’s not that interested in him.

Sure, this story is nothing new, but what is refreshing and incredibly satisfying about THE EDGE OF SEVENTEEN is the script and direction, both by Kelly Fremon Craig, and the excellent acting performances.

I loved Craig’s script.  The dialogue is sharp, frequently hilarious, and right on the money in terms of what it’s like to be seventeen.  It also especially nails the contentious relationship between Nadine and her mother.  One of movie’s best moments— and there are many of them— is when near the end of the film Nadine texts her mom that she’s safe, and her mother struggles to respond, writing and then deleting angry, fearful texts before finally settling on “OK.”  It’s a poignant moment, one that many parents have to deal with, that battle between being protective and letting go.

But the best part of the script is the humor.  I laughed out loud quite a bit during this movie.  Some of the funnier scenes are between Nadine and Erwin— their scene on the Ferris wheel together is a hoot.  The scenes between Nadine and Mr. Bruner are also very funny.

The serious scenes are equally as good.  The moment where Nadine becomes the punchline of a conversation about the movie TWINS (1987) is pointedly painful.  Likewise, the touching moment near the end of the film where Darian confronts Nadine is satisfyingly powerful.

Craig’s direction is just as good.  The film is lively, quickly paced, and full energy.  THE EDGE OF SEVENTEEN is not a superficial raunchy teen comedy.  On the contrary, it’s a deeply moving comedy-drama about a teenage girl dealing with her troubled life while searching for some meaning to it all.

The acting is wonderful.  Hailee Steinfeld is excellent as Nadine, and she easily carries this movie.  While Steinfeld was particularly memorable several years ago in the remake of TRUE GRIT (2010), I actually enjoyed her more here.  She captures the teen angst which Nadine experiences and makes it real.  She’s believable as a character who just wants to fit in, who wants to have friends, wants to have a boyfriend, but who feels so alienated from other people her own age.  One of the funniest and most insightful scenes is when Nadine goes off on her generation’s incessant use of texting on their phones.

THE EDGE OF SEVENTEEN is Steinfeld’s movie and she owns it.  But she has a fine supporting cast as well.

Haley Lu Richardson is sincere and likable as Nadine’s best friend Krista.  It’s clear that she’s devastated that her new relationship with Darian has damaged her lifelong one with Nadine. In another powerful scene, the moment where Nadine forces Krista to choose between her and her brother is one of the best scenes in the movie.  Krista initially refuses, but with her back against the wall, she chooses Darian.

Hayden Szeto is particularly good as the nerdy Erwin.  Other than Steinfeld, I think Szeto gives the best performance in the film. Erwin is obviously a good person, but Szeto’s performance lifts Erwin above the cliched “nice guy.”  First off, he’s as uncomfortable about relationships as Nadine is, but unlike Nadine, he’s coming from a happier place inside.  You are really rooting for him to win her over.

Kyra Sedgwick is also excellent at Nadine’s mom, Mona.  It’s clear that the reason Mona and Nadine butt heads so much is because they are so similar.  Mona is absolutely lost after her husband dies, and afterwards she is just as miserable as her daughter.  Sedgwick does a fantastic job emoting her pain and unhappiness.  You can see it all over her face.  But Mona is not a hopeless lost parent.  Sure, she struggles and is not going to win any parent of the year awards, but she continues to fight.  One of her more telling scenes is when she gets into a shouting match with her son and she uses the line “I’m the adult here!” to which Darian replies, “Then why do you always call me?”  And at that moment Mona realizes that he’s right, and that she’s been relying on him too much, because as she realizes she has no one else.

Blake Jenner is okay as Darian, and Woody Harrelson does his job as droll Mr. Bruner.  He’s not a particularly effective teacher.  We see him showing movies to his class and teaching them with as much enthusiasm as a study hall monitor, and he speaks to Nadine in ways that could easily get him fired if overheard, but the bottom line is in his own way he’s there for Nadine.  He is her constant listener, and later when she finds herself absolutely alone, it’s Bruner who she turns to, and he doesn’t let her down.  One of his better lines comes late in the movie as he drives her back to her house:  “I know this has to be said, and there’s no other way to say it, so I’ll just come out and say it.  Get out of the car.”

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Nadine (Hailee Steinfeld) with Mr. Bruner (Woody Harrelson).

I really enjoyed THE EDGE OF SEVENTEEN.  While it reminded me of how happy I am that I’m not seventeen anymore, it also captured the promise and energy of what it feels like to have your whole life ahead of you.  Of course, it also captured the pressure, which gives an entirely different meaning to the “edge” in the title.  Rather than being on the verge of seventeen, “edge” here can easily refer to the intensity and sharpness of the age.

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TRIPLE 9 (2016) Wastes Talented Cast

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With a cast that includes Casey Affleck, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Anthony Mackie, Woody Harrelson, Aaron Paul, Norman Reedus, and Kate Winslet, TRIPLE 9 (2016) should have been triple the fun, but it’s not.

TRIPLE 9 tells a dark tale of corrupt cops working for the Russian mob, and as such should have been a riveting action drama, but less than stellar writing and underdeveloped characters ultimately do this one in.

The bad guys include crooked cops Marcus Belmont (Anthony Mackie) and Franco Rodriguez (Clifton Collins Jr.), ex-cop Gabe Welch (Aaron Paul), and disgrunteld ex-soldiers Michael Atwood (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and Russell Welch (Norman Reedus) who also happens to be Gabe’s brother. They work for the Russian mob, and they’re at the mob’s beck and call because the head of the mob Irina Vlaslov (Kate Winslet) has Michael Atwood’s young son in her clutches, which in this case is easy to do because she happens to be the boy’s aunt!  See, the boy’s mother is Irina’s sister.

The good guys— and there’s not many of them in this movie— include Chris Allen (Casey Affleck), a cop who runs the straight and narrow because he wants to “make a difference,” (cliche, cough, cliche), and his loose canon police captain uncle Jeffrey Allen (Woody Harrelson).

Michael and his team rob a bank for Irina’s mob, but after the job, she refuses to pay them, saying there is one more job that they must do for her, and of course, Michael cannot refuse her, because she’s got his son.  The job is next to impossible, as it involves robbing a federal building loaded with swat-team style security, and so they come up with a plan to utilize “999” which is the police code for “officer down.”  They decide to kill a police officer, knowing that once that 999 code spreads over the police dispatch, every officer on the force will be racing towards the shooting scene, which will give them the time to make their impossible heist.

They choose Marcus’ new partner Chris to be their victim, thus setting the stage for the big conflict in this movie.

TRIPLE 9 suffers from some pretty weak writing across the board.    The screenplay is by Matt Cook, and it’s his first feature film writing credit.  It shows.

Let’s start with characters.  All of these guys have the potential to be very interesting, but none of them— not one– is developed enough for us to care about them.  Part of the problem is that there are too many characters in this movie.  Perhaps things would have been better had screenwriter Cook taken just two of these guys and built the story around them.

Take the two main characters for example.  You have Michael Atwood, played by Chiwetel Ejiofor, as the leader of the baddies, who should be the guy we love to hate, or perhaps feel bad about, but I felt absolutely nothing for this guy.  We’re supposed to feel bad for him bad for him because the mob has his son, but we never see him as a dad with his son.  They have some scenes together, but they’re meaningless.  On the contrary, the little kid seems to be having more fun with his aunt Irina.  Plus, we’re given no background to establish what kind of relationship Michael had with the boy’s mother.  Everything is all so peripheral.  And on the tough guy bad guy front, Michael is a failure as very few things he does here work.

Likewise, Casey Affleck’s Chris Allen is a walking cliche.  He goes around brooding, obviously unhappy with a lot of his fellow police officers (no wonder they want to kill him!) and the brief scenes where we see him with his family are pointless.  We just never get to know him.

Anthony Mackie’s Marcus Belmont is even less developed than these two.  Clifton Collins Jr. fares slightly better as Franco Rodriguez.  At least he comes off as slightly creepy.

Woody Harrelson’s performance as Jeffrey Allen is all over the place.  At times, he acts like the top cop in the precinct, but more often than not he’s a loose wire, often sounding and acting like the corrupt cops he’s trying to weed out.

And then there’s Kate Winslet.  What was she doing in this movie?  Irina Vlaslov comes off like a cross between Cruella Deville and Brigitte Nielsen’s Ludmilla from ROCKY IV (1985) only without any personality.  I never took this character seriously.

The two best peformances in this movie belong to the two TV stars, Aaron Paul (BREAKING BAD) and Norman Reedus (THE WALKING DEAD).

Reedus delivers the best performance in the movie, hands down, with Paul right behind him, but the reason they don’t lift this movie is they’re not in it much at all.  Had this film been built around these guys, these characters, the filmmakers might have had something.  Reedus is icy cool as big brother Russell Welch, and in his brief screen time, he manages to do something that no one else other than Paul does in this film:  he actually makes you care about his character a little bit.  Incredibly, in the brief time Reedus is in this movie, he gives Russell some depth, a feeling that there’s more to this guy than just a shallow mercenary.

Paul does the same with younger brother Gabe Welch.  Of all the villains, it’s Gabe who’s the most messed up, the one who struggles the most to keep it all together, and Paul does a great job with this character.  Unfortunately, the movie spends very little time on these guys.

Director John Hillcoat actually does a pretty good job here.  The opening robbery sequence is indeed rather riveting, and the climactic “999” scene is also very good, but there’s just so much in the middle that doesn’t work that by the time we get to that “999” scene, I didn’t really care about any of it.

For example, there’s the weak depiction of the Russian mob.  How do we know this Russian mob is so deadly?  Because we’re privy to quick shots of bloodied whimpering bodies in the trunks of cars.  It’s certainly not because we’re privy to what the mob is up to.  The plot is centered around the big heist at the end, and yet very little time is spent on what they are actually stealing or why the mob wants it so badly.

The film also never really delivers true suspense.

There’s just not a lot that works in TRIPLE 9.  It wastes its very talented cast, its story is contrived, its characters undeveloped, and its execution is uneven.

Instead of calling in a 999, perhaps the folks in this movie should have dialed 911.