War for the Planet of the Apes

Year of release: 2017              Directed by Matt Reeves.                   Starring Andy Serkis, Woody Harrelson, Karin Konoval, Steve Zahn, Amiah Miller, and Toby Kebbel.

Andy Serkis has described War for the Planet of the Apes as a film about the battle for Caesar’s soul, and that is the war which consumes most of the action in this film. The fighting between apes and humans which began in the prior film, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, takes a backseat where both species, either as individuals or as a whole, live or die according to their own choices.

In a film where the outcome is predetermined – because the trilogy which War concludes serves as a prequel to a world where humans have died out and apes have inherited the planet – diverting the heart of the action from an apes versus humans standoff is a wise choice. That way we can feel the tragedy of humanity’s extinction without rooting for either side to eliminate the other. This is a stark contrast and improvement from the first film of this trilogy, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, where all the humans were either forgettable, clichéd good guys who could die off without any sense of loss or insufferable monsters whom any normal person would want the apes to destroy.

However, the second film, Dawn, changed that by showing the best and worst of both humans and apes, and by pitting Caesar (the leader of the chimps played by Andy Serkis) against Koba, (Toby Kebbel) an ape consumed with hatred toward humans for the abusive experiments they had carried out on him. Koba’s ghost continues to haunt Caesar after an early tragedy in War reveals to Caesar that he has a capacity for the same level of hatred. If the primary conflict in the last film was ape versus ape, here it is ape versus self.

Caesar’s internal wrestling with rage, along with the consequences of the choices he makes as a result, weakens the Moses figure he otherwise is to the apes, who are trying to pass through a desert to their own promised land in order to escape slavery or death at the hands of desperate humans willing to attempt anything in order to survive.

Here, there is very little good to be found in humanity who given themselves over to fear and anger in their desperation to survive. The worst of man is personified by Woody Harrelson’s Colonel who views himself as fighting a holy war for the survival of humanity not only against apes, but also against a new strand of the virus which killed millions of humans while increasing apes’ strength and intelligence, and against other humans who disagree with his extreme methods. The Colonel is the leader of the villains, much as Koba was in the last film, but as there was with Koba, there is a scene where we learn the source of his anger and extreme methods, making him, if not sympathetic, at least pitiable.

Like many fanatics, the Colonel is religiously driven: crucifying apes, blessing his soldiers with the sign of the cross, appropriating the U.S. national anthem in a borderline idolatrous way, painting alpha and omega symbols on the American flag, and carving them onto apes he’s convinced to serve him. It’s certainly possible that the alpha and omega were chosen to reflect the simultaneous end of humanity and rise of the apes, but the religious connotations of those Greek letters can hardly be overlooked in light of the other symbols.

When the Colonel finally has his main confrontation with Caesar, his rationalization is a perversion of love, which has taken a good thing (protection of humanity) and twisted it to justify any atrocity needed for that end. It reminded me of what C. S. Lewis wrote in The Four Loves regarding unhealthy patriotism that “can very easily borrow the transcendent claims of [Heavenly Society] and use them to justify the most abominable actions.” (The Four Loves, p. 38)

“I may without self-righteousness or hypocrisy think it just to defend my house by force against a burglar; but if I start pretending that I blacked his eye purely on moral grounds – wholly indifferent to the fact that the house in question was mine – I become insufferable.” (The Four Loves, p. 37)

The Colonel has passed from insufferable to monstrous, and when Caesar witnesses that, he sees his rage taking him down that path as well. Thus, it is fitting that the ape versus man conflict between Caesar and the Colonel forms a smaller part in Caesar’s own struggle that drives the film.

Ministering to Caesar’s better nature is his oldest surviving friend the orangutan Maurice (Karin Konoval) who finds a peculiar child (Amiah Miller) who personifies one of the Colonel’s fears and reminds Caesar about the costs of violence. All the themes tie together pretty obviously, and at times, the film is a little heavy-handed and the pacing a little too drawn out, but as an examination that twists the traditional revenge tale it succeeds very well.

As a chronicle of how the apes inherited this planet, War for the Planet of the Apes serves as the strongest installment of the trilogy which began with humans cutting corners for the sake of profits and science and culminated with them cutting ethical corners to engage in acts which made them more brutal than the beasts they feared. It’s unquestionably tragic, but Matt Reeves’ film treats it with the solemnity it deserves, while never forgetting to remind us of the more peaceful outcome that was sadly rejected in favor of violence.

 

 

Personal Recommendation: B

Content advisory: Gun violence, ape fights, some mild gore, an implied off-screen euthanasia, torture of apes.                 MPAA rating: PG-13

Suggested Audience: Teens and up.

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Dunkirk

Year of release: 2017              Directed by Christopher Nolan.                      Starring Fionn Whithead, Damien Bonnard, Mark Rylance, Cillian Murphy and Kenneth Branagh.

Dunkirk is relentless. I say that as neither praise nor criticism, but as mere statement of fact, much in the same way one would say Les Miserables is a musical or Gone with the Wind is the longest Best Picture winner or Mad Max: Fury Road is an epic car chase. Dunkirk is relentless, and that is clearly something of which Christopher Nolan is proud.

Nolan has so clearly accomplished exactly what he wanted with Dunkirk that the film is in many ways critic-proof. Sure, it’s possible to say one dislikes it, and it’s also possible to rave about it as the best film of the year. In both cases, the writer will be revealing more about themselves and their personal tastes than the film, and they will not be acknowledging that the film strikingly and stunningly achieves everything it wanted to, so if there are aspects one dislikes, those are not filmmaking weaknesses.

The same goes for Hans Zimmer’s score; one can love or hate his incessantly pulsating soundtrack telling the audience exactly what emotions to feel in each scene, but it’s impossible to deny that the score massively aids in the creation of the tense, heart-pounding atmosphere that Zimmer and Nolan worked so hard to achieve.

Watching this epic historical rescue mission condensed down to a taut, nerve-racking hour and forty-six minutes is a cinematic experience like no other. Seeing Dunkirk on anything other than the largest screen possible will be watching a mere shadow of Nolan’s vision, much like listening to an mp3 of a Beethoven symphony through a mediocre ear bud will only convey a fragment of Beethoven’s genius.

Before I continue, let me state clearly that I think Dunkirk is an astonishing achievement. Early buzz hinted at its staggering realism in making the viewer experience the reality of war first hand. While it undeniably makes the viewer experience the events of the story first hand, it is not a war film, and it doesn’t convey the cost of war or the notion that war is hell, at least not in a traditional sense. Instead it places the viewer directly in the midst of a dangerous and desperate rescue mission, showing the cost of victory, bravery, and heroism, clearly demonstrating that there is nobility in capture or retreat. It is that rescue mission the viewer survives along with the characters.

And it is a rescue mission to behold! There were several times I gasped believing I was really present. Cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema captures the beauty and the menace of the sea and shore, the simultaneous threat and salvation they provide to the soldiers, which is important considering the Nazis are never once seen in the film, but their absence coupled with the danger of the Dunkirk beach makes their looming proximity felt all the more.

The rescue mission takes place on land, sea, and in air, with each portion of the rescue occurring in its own timeline – a week for the almost 400,000 soldiers stranded at the Dunkirk beach, a day for the British sailors coming to their rescue across the Channel, and one hour for the pilots attempting to shoot down Nazi planes. Nolan cuts between the three storylines and timelines effortlessly, much the same way he did with Memento, and when he brings all three together at the film’s climax, he finds the best of all his cinematic interests. His puzzle crafting skills and humanist interests serve one another in an inspiring way I would not have believed possible.

The film’s climax was truly the make or break moment for me, and in my opinion Nolan pulled it off in spades. I had spent the eighty minutes prior to that unsure whether I loved or hated the film. It was easy to admire the intensity and purity of Nolan’s vision, so stunningly captured, yet the shock and awe of the proceedings, while admirable at first, were stretching me to my breaking point, which I think was Nolan’s intention to reflect the ordeal of the soldiers. Then the climax arrived, and with it, not only the dispersion of the tension, but a beautiful moment of hope celebrating the sacrificial virtue of the rescuers, acknowledging the heroism of retreat, the triumph of capture, and the victory in loss of a battle. The simple line uttered by Kenneth Branagh’s navy captain with joy and gravitas underscored all those sentiments perfectly.

At that moment there was also a stark change in the score, as Zimmer’s driving pulsation gave way to a soaring string melody using Elgar’s theme from the Enigma Variations. Hearing that theme was a welcome reprieve from the intensity of the prior cues, but more importantly, the grandeur of one of the most famous British musical themes captured the importance of taking the soldiers home away from the war while mirroring their own relief, which again, I believe was the point.

Watching this film projected on 70mm IMAX, I had to remind myself to breathe on several occasions. Not only was the tension so great that it seemed as if the viewer were surviving the rescue mission alongside the soldiers, but there were many breathtaking instances of beauty to behold as well. Regardless of how one feels about Nolan forcing his audience to experience a soldier’s point of view in way no other film has done, Dunkirk is undisputedly bold and daring cinema. It’s a film I can honestly say I loved, even while acknowledging it is not one I’ll revisit too frequently.

 

Personal Recommendation: A-

Content advisory: Extremely intense, but non-graphic war time violence; a few crass words                      MPAA rating: PG-13

Suggested Audience: Teens and up.

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Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Year of release: 1966              Directed by Mike Nichols.                  Starring Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, George Segal, and Sandy Dennis.

Less than half an hour into Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, after some exchanges of mildly charged verbal barbs, Martha (Elizabeth Taylor) turns to her husband George (Richard Burton) and snaps at him with a profanity. That profanity is uttered in place of a less offensive vulgarity from the stage play, which in 1966 ironically had to be censored for the film. At the same time, the profane line demonstrates the cruelty and contempt to which George and Martha’s marriage has disintegrated. More importantly, the way the new line is filmed highlights the cracks in the façade of playful marital sparring which the protagonists have maintained to hide the painful truth that eats away at their marriage, a façade which a young married couple (George Segal and Sandy Dennis) will pass straight through over the course of the film as they learn the tragic reason behind the bitter fun and games ruthlessly played by George and Martha.

Since Taylor had initially filmed the scene saying the original line from the play, it was quite noticeable that the dubbed profanity did not match the movement of her lips. Therefore, director Mike Nichols re-edited that scene to show George opening the door for their evening guests right as Martha swears at him. In that cut, the unhealthiness of George and Martha’s marriage manifests itself to another couple, and the viciousness contained in that line perfectly sets the stage for the navigation of that tempestuous marriage which form the remainder of the film.

In many ways, the two hour “evening of fun and games” fueled by alcohol and spiked not only with profanities, but also with humiliating personal insults, betrayals of confidence, and attempted infidelity forms a near perfect tragedy. The lashing out is a cry for help and form of self medication, not dissimilar from a chronically depressed person turning to alcohol or drugs. At the centre of all the pain is a marital disappointment from which George and Martha have tried to hide by denying it through the calculated rules of their ruthless games, all for the sake of appearances.

A few years back, several friends and I were discussing the Arts and Faith list of the top 25 films on marriage, focusing on the merits of two films that had just missed the cut: Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and Eyes Wide Shut. A friend of mine stated that the former was a personal favorite he wanted to see included, but the latter was essential, and its absence was the greater loss. With all respect to my friend, whom I deeply respect, I now think it’s the other way around. While I love both films, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is an essential film about an unhealthy marriage, because the reason behind the failure of George and Martha’s marriage acknowledges marriage as a social institution, and it reveals how the frustration regarding one social aspect of marriage fermented into bitterness and contempt that carefully displays itself to the public as a demented social interaction.

When the revelation of the tragedy finally occurs, Nichols shows that he has given clear thought to this story as a film and not just a recreation of the stage production. The climax alternates between long distance overhead shots that allow the film to breathe as the night of games comes to an end and tight close-ups showing the heartbreak that the characters can no longer ignore. Similar brilliant directorial choices abound throughout, such as the editing for Martha’s aforementioned profanity and the tracking shots as George plans his revenge for a particularly humiliating story of Martha’s.

As the two couples, Taylor and Burton – married at the time – give the fiery bouts their all with Burton providing a quiet intensity that perfectly balances Taylor’s more flamboyant antics; and George Segal and Sandy Dennis are fantastic as the young couple Nick and Honey, initially reticent to play along with George and Martha, but quickly warming up to their callousness until things take a shockingly harsh turn. The film became the first movie for the entire billed cast to receive Oscar nominations for acting, and all four were richly deserved.

In case this review has not made it clear, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is an extremely difficult film to watch, but the way it handles tragedy through the sharpness and wittiness of its retorts underscores the painfulness of loss and the unhealthy ways which people deal with that. The title itself refers to another game of George and Martha’s which appears several times throughout the film, usually in an attempt to distract from something more unpleasant. However, at the end, the only way to acknowledge the pain is to answer the titular question with a sobering, heartbroken “I am.”

 

Personal Recommendation: A+

Suggested Audience: Adults with discernment

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Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets

Year of release: 2017              Directed by Luc Besson.                    Starring Dane DeHaan, Cara Delevingne, Clive Owen, Ethan Hawke, and Rihanna.

Sometimes movies should just be fun. No, I do not think it’s a good idea to turn our brains off when we watch a film; we should be conscious of whatever art we’re consuming. However, when a film spectacularly succeeds in one regard, there is nothing wrong with overlooking noticeable weaknesses in favor of its strengths.

In the case of Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets those strengths are the wonderfully inventive and breathtaking visuals which permeate every frame of director Luc Besson’s wild, joy-filled thrill ride. It is unabashedly clear that he has crafted exactly the film he wanted to and could not care less what any viewers think of it, and the blatant love he has for this project and its delirious imagery is contagious. It is nearly impossible not to smile when watching an underwater hunt for a mysterious jellyfish that lives on giant dinosaurs, a chameleon-like creature called a Mul-Converter making thousands of high-powered pearls to save a planet, and a chase sequence that simultaneously occurs on a planet’s real surface and in a virtual black market.

If all that sounds crazy, it’s because it is, and the most remarkable thing is none of those would be the film’s most bonkers idea. There’s more than one possible answer to what that is, but for my money, I would answer it’s the shape-shifting alien named Bubble, played by Rihanna, whom our hero Valerian must go inside so she can act as a camouflage for them to rescue his partner Laureline. And if that doesn’t sound insane enough, we first meet Bubble being exploited by her pimp Jolly (a sinister yet comical Ethan Hawke) in a musical number with Bob Fosse-esque choreography, which completely stops the plot of the film for another wild invention of Besson’s.

The plot is utterly nonsensical, and the less time anyone spends thinking about it, the better off they will be. Thankfully, the film wastes very little time with expository dialogue or clarifying the plot, because the plot is not the driving force of this film. You either accept whatever is happening on screen at the current moment, or you don’t. Towards the end, there is an attempt to tie all the plot points together in a coherent fashion, which is the film’s biggest failure, because 1) it’s not possible to make complete sense of a story this outlandish, and 2) the focus on the plot bogs the film down with unnecessary details, stretching its runtime about twenty minutes too long.

As two special agents charged with keeping the universe safe, Dane DeHaan and Cara Delevingne clearly enjoy themselves as Valerian and Laureline, even if their characters don’t have any defining personality traits. Their missions reference movies from Star Wars (the originals and the prequels) to Star Trek to Blade Runner with escapes down giant trash shoots, planets with underwater centers, giant computer systems that control entire planets, and the titular city of a thousand planets, which houses every species in the galaxy. The result is an all encompassing spectacle that demands to be seen in 3D on the largest screen possible. There a few films which I think benefit from 3D, but this is unquestionably one of them.

In many ways, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is the film that Guardians of the Galaxy vol. 2 should have been. It’s more daring, more creative, and this intergalactic adventure is a lot more fun. The use of pop hits is another similarity to Guardians; the opening sequence here is underscored by David Bowie’s Space Oddity, and the perfectly synchronized montage takes us from the first space adventures of the 1960’s to the 28th Century. In that sequence alone, I had more fun than I’ve had at any movie all year, and that doesn’t relent for most of the movie.

There are many people who will understandably find the craziness of the central concept a damning flaw, but for me Besson’s symphony of imagery and visual effects more than makes up for that with its sense of originality, wild creativity, and most importantly, fun. Valerian is first and foremost about the visual world Besson wanted to build, and the film’s greatest asset is that it never forgets that, and it invites us to enjoy it as much as Besson obviously does.

 

Personal Recommendation: A-

Content advisory: Sci-fi violence and peril, some slightly suggestive costumes, and a mildly risqué dance number.                        MPAA rating: PG-13

Suggested Audience: Teens and up.

 

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Once Upon a Time in America

Year of release: 1984              Directed by Sergio Leone.                  Starring Robert De Niro, James Woods, Elizabeth McGovern, and Joe Pesci.

“I believe in America.” “America was born in the streets.” Wrong movies, admittedly, but that grand and tragic mythos is the focus of Sergio Leone’s beautifully sprawling epic Once Upon a Time in America. The title itself suggests that grandiose myth-making, which the characters write both for themselves and for their country.

The film opens with the shattering of that myth. David “Noodles” Aaronson (Robert De Niro) has witnessed the murder of the three surviving members of his gang, and he is on the run from several hitmen. The world of gangs, deals with cops, and profits from the speakeasies of the Great Depression which he worked so hard to build for himself has turned on him. Not only that, but the funds which the gang had put aside for all of their use were stolen as well. Resigned to his fate, Noodles leaves Manhattan, intending to end the myth which he lived for so long.

Then, with a jump cut, we are no longer in the era of prohibition, opium dens, jazz, and ragtime, but that of Lennon and McCartney, television, and respectable businesses. However, this age is just as quintessential a slice of the American myth as the ’30’s, and Noodles’ memories of “Yesterday” continue to haunt him as he adjusts to the next chapter of America. The nonlinear editing between 1968, 1932, and 1920 connects past, present, and future as inseparable parts of the country America has become – born in the streets when the teenage Noodles and his gang stood up to rivals and blackmailed corrupt cops; growing up to side with unions, threaten corrupt businessmen, rob them, and rape their secretaries if need be; and reaching a maturity where anyone can achieve prosperity with enough hard work and determination, as long as they have some corrupt politicians in the palm of their hand.

It’s an unflattering picture, and it sounds crazy to think it will last (and in the 21st century, coupled with recent events, it seems more inevitable than ever that it will fail), but Noodles and especially his friend and partner Max (James Woods) are determined to get all they can from it as long as they believe in it. The crumbling of that belief occurs at ostensibly different points for both of them, and the subsequent rift between them that results is reflected not only in Max’s desire to pursue more dangerous work with ruthless gangsters like Frankie (Joe Pesci), but in Noodles’ waking up from the American Dream to replace it with an opium dream of a forgetful haze. As Max becomes intoxicated with his American dream, Noodles’ dream turns into a nightmare, at which point he wakes up to find a new dream.

However, is it possible to wake up? In the final confrontation, Noodles and Max recount strikingly different memories of the same incident that brought their belief in the America to a crashing end. Nonetheless, the dream and the myth they had elaborately written for themselves had become so widespread, so entrenched in the American mind that both characters were forced to become new characters in their own myth, which had grown well beyond their control and left them victims of fate, not dissimilar to the random fates they left for a next generation when they needed to scare a police chief.

As Noodles, De Niro is far less sympathetic than the young Sicilian gangster he played ten years prior to this, but his mission to control the streets of his New York neighborhood while turning against anything that offered him a more innocent life is not much different. As Noodles’ first 11 year old love says, she could love him, if he wouldn’t always be a two-bit punk. The culmination of their relationship may be the most tragic, and is certainly most horrifying scene in the movie for the microcosmic way that it shows how Noodles’ belief in his own desires above all else runs roughshod over not only institutions but other people as well.

Whereas The Godfather is primarily interested in the ramifications of corruption on its once moral protagonist, Once Upon a Time in America lacks that upright protagonist and is interested in how his participation in the American mythos makes him more corrupt. Instead of focusing on the moral fall of an individual and the dissolution of a family as Coppola did, Leone focuses on the dissolution of the American dream itself and the consequences for those who imbibe it. It’s debatable which tragedy is greater, but the far reaching consequences of greed, working to get ahead at any cost, and loyalty to ideas over human beings receives a more damning indictment here. And that is no more apparent than in the ironic use of “God Bless America” which frames the film.

 

Personal Recommendation: A

Suggested Audience: Adults with discernment

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