Atomic Blonde – Film Review

If this was based on a John Le Carre novel with a setting in eighties East Berlin, and principle characters were either undercover spies or double agents, then the tone would be bleak, low-key, with most of the dialog taking place in hushed tones on park benches or in half-lit back alleys. Even if it was shot in color it would still look black and white. And hardly a moment of action.

But Atomic Blonde is not Le Carre. It’s from writers of comics and video games, and based on an adolescent fantasy from a graphic novel. The setting may still be eighties Berlin, and the characters are certainly all spies, but at the center is a tall, leggy, blonde in stiletto boots, short skirts, garter belts and dark glasses. And she’s undercover. And of course, no one is supposed to notice her. Plus, there’s not a lot of actual detective work going on; no LeCarre cloak and dagger here, but there’s a ton of action.

The first we meet English MI6 spy Lorraine Broughton (Charlize Theron) is when she rises naked, battered and bruised, out of an ice bath in a London hotel. Clearly, she’s gone through hell and would rather forget what had happened to her, but there’s a job to complete, a report to file, and a secret interview in a small, dark room with a two-way mirror to attend.

Berlin,” begins her boss, Eric Gray (Toby Jones), seated next to a top-level CIA agent, Emmett Kurzfeld (John Goodman). “What happened?

Told in a series of flashbacks, Lorraine relates the events of the previous ten days. The Berlin Wall is about to come down and alliances between powers are about to change. When an undercover agent known to possess a list of double agents between the superpowers is killed and fished out of the river, Lorraine is dispatched to Berlin to sort things out; find out who killed whom, get that list, and help smuggle a man named Spyglass (Eddie Marsan) from the east to the west. From there, it all spirals out of control.

Director David Leitch, who before directing was a stunt coordinator and a stuntman, was no doubt part of the MTV generation, raised on eighties pop/rock and music videos. A concern of filmmakers from a previous generation was always that the eighties might produce a new breed of directors who considered promotional music videos and how they looked to be short films; they’d incorporate that flashy, surface, video style once given the green-light to make their own, full-length feature.

Atomic Blonde is a good example, which here is not altogether a bad thing – cinematographer Jonathan Sela’s imagery often looks stunning, plus the whole film is exceptionally well lit – but like most of those early music videos when MTV actually played them, there’s an absence of feeling; it’s all bathed in neon, with heavy doses of eighties pop/rock over substance while telling a simple plot and making it unnecessarily complex. As the story progresses, you’re never quite sure what you’re watching. But it looks and sounds great, and Lorraine can certainly kick a deadly stiletto.

As with Leitch’s previous film – he co-directed John Wick with fellow stuntman Chad Stahelski – the action is well-choreographed and furious. The physical combat hits hard, and lands with the force of an anvil thrown repeatedly to the face, with sound effects to support. Every punch is either a bone-snapper, a back-breaker, or a skull crusher. It’s a wonder anyone stood up after the first hit, but get up they do, and fight, and fight, and fight some more.

A later sequence, where Lorraine batters an East German agent, is a breath-taking affair. It begins up in an East Berlin apartment, then on the landing, then down the stairs, then in the hallway, eventually spilling out onto the streets, and still they get to their feet. It’s a stunning, brutal sequence, four or five minutes in length, filmed and edited with an impression that it was all done in a single take. It may dazzle, but seeing how the characters involved continue to run around once the fight is done, there’s never real power to the punch; like everything else, it simply looks good. Plus, knowing that Lorraine is actually telling this story back in a dark, interrogation room to her bosses in London, being concerned for her safety or wondering whether she’ll ever survive such brutality is never an issue. We’ve seen the bruises, but we know she’s really back in Blighty, talking about it.

The film can boast a great soundtrack. MTV songs of the day, remembered but now rarely heard, are often used not only for period atmosphere but to humorous, narrative effect as if certain lines are commenting on the action. In addition to the two German hits, 99 Luftballons and Der Kommissar, there’s The Politics of Dancing from Re-Flex, Til Tuesday’s Voices Carry, used when Lorraine turns up the volume to drown a conversation in a bugged room, and A Flock of Seagulls’ And I Ran where the line “Couldn’t get away” is timed to coincide with an enemy vehicle suddenly blocking Lorraine’s path during a car chase. Though using The Clash’s London Calling to represent a return back to the titular city yet again is really getting lazy.

Curiously, the version of Der Kommissar played is the English language version by After The Fire. You’d think while walking into a Berlin bar in the middle of Germany, the place would be playing the local Falco hit that topped charts all over Europe. A minor detail, perhaps, but it serves as a reminder that director Leitch was never going for LeCarre realism, even with the soundtrack. It was always MTV fantasy. In fact, when that Berlin wall finally comes down during the latter moments of the film, the television news reporting the event is a recording of Kurt Loder on MTV News.

Theron looks great, and her fight sequences and gun play are right up there with Keanu Reeves’ first John Wick, but she’s playing an empty cipher with a cultured English accent. There’s nothing at her center, and you’ll never know anything about her, she’s just there; a cold, deadly, icy blonde in thigh-high boots, straight from a teenage boy’s fantasy who’s taking a break from reading superhero graphic novels and turning to something that looks as though it might have gravitas – the Berlin wall setting works well – with a killer blonde at its center. But like Lorraine, the film may be an eye-catcher, but ultimately it’s equally vacant. Despite those killer kicks and a high-volume soundtrack, that convoluted plot really doesn’t help.

MPAA Rating: R    Length: 115 Minutes    Overall Rating: 5 (out of 10)

Posted in Film

City of Ghosts – Film Review

In his previous award-winning documentary, Cartel Land, director Matthew Heineman presented a terrifying picture of the Mexican Drug War. Throughout, there was a continuing sense of peril, an all-encompassing feeling of total discomfort that at any moment something threatening would lash out and harm those on camera, perhaps even the filmmakers themselves. In his new documentary, City of Ghosts, that same sense of urgency is missing.

That’s not to say that the subject is of any less importance. The picture presented of a Syrian media activist group and its reason to be are of nightmares. But where Cartel Land placed you firmly at the center, the heroes of City of Ghosts work from a distance, in Germany, where they have fled. It’s the absence of imminent danger that makes the difference; it sets a different tone. If anything, unlike Cartel Land, it allows you to breathe.

Raqqa is a Syrian city roughly a hundred miles east of Aleppo. A voice-over tells us that it was once an ordinary city with a normal life; the happiness of one house spread to every house on the street. With introductory shots of children playfully jumping into water to escape the summer heat, coupled with film of a happy, local wedding reception, there’s always the issue of a documentary overplaying its hand with idyllicism before it’s even begun. Adding that, “For us, life was beautiful,” only underlines that desire to present Raqqa as a place of peace, a Shangri-La in the middle of Syria.  In a documentary as good as this, such an introduction feels a little too obvious, particularly when we know that throughout President Bashar al-Assad’s leadership, Raqqa was hardly tranquil.

After a years of oppression, opposition to the 19th president of Syria developed. When a group of teenage high-schoolers painted ‘Down With The Regime’ on the walls of their school, fifteen children were taken by the authorities and tortured. That’s how it began.

Opposition forces to the government grew, but then, in came the Islamic State to Raqqa, the uncompromising, murderous soldiers of ISIS, bringing with them promises of order, leadership, and prosperity. “At first glance they looked like other military groups,” the voice-over states, but things quickly changed. Those who wouldn’t join were tortured and executed, shot in the middle of town, their bodies left in the streets as examples for all to see. Director Heineman incorporates stunning, shocking scenes of ISIS executions, filmed secretly by those who had yet to flee.

The Islamic State made Raqqa its Syrian capital. It cut the area off to the outside world and halted all communications. The world, not even Syria, was aware of what had happened and continued to happen in Raqqa. The city was being silently slaughtered, and nobody knew.

It was out of this that a secret citizen journalist group developed. Desperately wanting the world to know what was occurring within the limits of their home, these young men and women hunkered down and reported the human rights abuses of the Islamic State. “In my opinion,” states a reporter, “A camera is more powerful than a weapon.” Through its work on the Internet, with reporting and powerful, secretly filmed images professionally edited, it did what it could to oppose the suggestion that the city had welcomed the occupation of ISIS. They called themselves RBSS (Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently) and City of Ghosts is their story.

Having seen the work produced by RBSS, and realizing the potential of a professionally produced video, ISIS produced its own, well-produced shorts. Knowing who these journalists are, and not having the ability to get to them with the immediacy of simply kidnapping someone off the street, the Islamic State turned to the families of the reporters who had remained. When a journalist and his brother in Germany watch a slickly produced ISIS video presenting the execution of their father in Raqqa, edited like a professionally produced thriller, full of close-ups and tense, lengthy, atmospheric pauses before the trigger is finally pulled, there are no words to describe the horror, or the anger.

There’s also the unexpected issue of the European refugee problem. Scenes of a German backlash against foreigners show a group of neo-Nazis insisting that these Syrians go home while whipping up public support with finger-pointing and hate. They’re unable to (or more appropriately, don’t care to) tell the difference between a lone terrorist driving a truck through a Christmas market or a knife attack against a French policeman from those seeking sanctuary and needing refuge from a terrifying existence.

As with Cartel War, director Heineman brings to our doorstep something horrendous seen usually as an occurrence happening somewhere else. It’s delivered with remarkable clarity. The center of City of Ghosts may be the story of these journalists, but the film also serves as an illustration to the issue of Syria as a whole; a subject that may seem too complicated to fully grasp on the news but is here given perspective that should undoubtedly haunt. We should be shocked, and Heineman makes sure that we are. The documentary deals with the subject without hiding the horror; the images hold nothing back. What you’ll see is truly the stuff of nightmares, and Heineman makes it personal.

MPAA Rating: R    Length: 90 Minutes   Overall Rating: 9 (out of 10)

Posted in Film

Dunkirk – Film Review

When director Leslie Norman completed and released his 1958, 135 minute epic war film, Dunkirk, the time from the actual event was a mere eighteen years. Most audiences in those British theatres were only too aware of the story’s time-frame, the causes, and the outcome. Many were even survivors of the horror, those who had actually waited there, on the beaches, wondering if they’d ever make it home, fearing for their lives. And worse, the war had hardly begun.

Audiences for Christopher Nolan’s 2017 considerably shorter 104 minute version will be different. Other than scholars of world wars and those with a keen interest in historical wartime events, most audiences, particularly American and those outside of European countries, will be aware of little. Other than having perhaps once heard of the French town, they’ll know nothing of Operation Dynamo, what it was, why it occurred, and why the Dunkirk evacuation was often called the Miracle of Dunkirk. It’s part of history, and a vastly important one, but it’s not their history. It would take a further fourteen months until the United States entered the war. After watching Nolan’s recreation of the drama, as far as the facts go, they’ll remain knowing little.

But 2017 audiences will have witnessed something uniquely different that the film in 1958 could never have presented. Nolan has little interest in delivering a story – facts, figures, times and dates have no part of this Dunkirk – rather, the writer/director has created something astonishingly visceral; how you react will be personal; no one else in the theatre will experience it in quite the way you will.

There’s no big picture, no time establishing introduction, and no perspective of where or at what point you are in the war. There are simply the events of those nine days that began on May 26 and ended June 4, 1940, seen almost exclusively from the point of view of the allied forces, the men stranded on the beaches and harbors of the French town, waiting for rescue while the enemy attacked and systematically picked them off as though they were target practice. When the film begins, four of those nine days may have already passed, but it’s difficult to tell, and Nolan is explaining nothing.

The film is told from three angles, and they come with chapter headings that will only make sense if you’re already aware. The first is 1. The Mole. One Week. It’s the point of view of the stranded infantry on the beach. The second is 2. The Sea. One Day. It’s the evacuation at sea where the Royal Navy on English shores commandeered civilian boats and small fishing vessels to assist in the channel crossing rescue. And the third is 3. The Air. One Hour. It’s above, among the clouds, where spitfires helped combat air attacks from German planes. The week, day and hour references indicate the length of time those events occurred, yet Nolan mixes them together in a fragmented time-line that jumps from moment to moment, and in no particular order other than to heighten dramatic events to their maximum potential. Events that occur in the daytime will intercut with those in the nighttime; things that happened within an hour begin and end at the same time as events that lasted a week.

After spending what must have felt like an eternity standing in orderly lines, there on the beaches, looking out across the English Channel, hoping to catch sight of a vessel coming to pick them up, enemy planes fly in from above, and fire. The men, mostly boys, scatter, diving for cover. “Where’s the bloody air-force?” demands one army soldier after wiping the sand from his face. It’s one of the first lines uttered in a film that has little dialog.

Other than brief conversations between officers, where Kenneth Branagh as Commander Bolton tells another office to think again about loading the wounded on boats – “One stretcher takes the space of seven standing men” – or when soldiers huddled together below deck in a beached trawler argue among themselves, dialog throughout is at a minimum. Instead, Nolan recreates events through action where an occurrence is witnessed from the point of view of the young men involved. A spitfire crashes onto the channel’s surface, and the impact is experienced in a way rarely, if ever, seen on film; we’re there, right there with the plane as it hits the water, and we grimace and brace ourselves in the same way the pilot does. When soldiers, covered in oil, swim for their lives, then are forced underwater while the channel above is set aflame, we’re with them, under the water, looking up, unable to surface.  The moment is one of absolute terror.

Nolan’s Dunkirk may not be the film you were expecting. Despite many extraordinary compositions and breathtaking character view points, courtesy of Hoyte van Hoytema’s outstanding cinematography, the fractured story-telling style may still keep you at arm’s length, even though Nolan’s ultimate aim is for the fully, you-are-there, immersive approach. Up until now, his inspiration has mostly come from comic-book or sci-fi fantasy. Dunkirk is Nolan’s first, factual movie based on historical events, but while there are many remarkable and certainly inspirational moments, the film is not a complete success. It’s a cinematic jigsaw, full of startling, individual pieces that don’t always unite. Because of the altered time-line approach, many will be confused, often unnecessarily so.  It stops a good film from becoming what you hope will be a great one.

Audiences will have several different presentations of the film from which to choose. The majority can see Dunkirk as a widescreen feature in regular, digital theatres; then there’s the widescreen 70mm print which will have a special presentation in select city theatres capable of projecting real film with sprockets; and finally there’s IMAX, where the giant and practically squared screen will fill out to all corners. The choice of viewing is yours, depending on availability and personal budget. Mine would be in 70mm.

The press showing was in IMAX, and while the image is certainly crystal clear, the sound is ridiculously high. Nolan often engages in a soundtrack where the score swells to an overwhelming level, but here, composer Hans Zimmer’ s lengthy, sustained bass line is so powerful, with IMAX you feel it in your chest. Once again, even with the music, director Nolan goes for the visceral. But it presents a problem. Often, the sound is in danger of smothering what little dialog there is. Dunkirk deserves a second viewing, but once you’ve taken in the IMAX experience, it should be where the score enhances the visual rather than drowning it. A true appreciation can be difficult when the presentation is more a cinematic side-show than a performance; you’re too overwhelmed by an unrelenting surge of sight and sound to make an honest judgment.

In truth, Nolan’s Dunkirk is really an art-house film with a mainstream, tent-pole budget. There are amazing images – the sight of those small, civilian vessels and pleasure boats on the horizon can’t help but stir emotions and fill you with pride – but, despite the early talk of Oscars, not everyone will take to the style, or be satisfied.

MPAA Rating: PG-13    Length: 104 Minutes     Overall rating: 8 (out of 10)

Posted in Film

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets – Film Review

Sci-fi fans have long suspected it was probably the French science fiction comic series, Valerian and Laureline that inspired Star Wars. At least, in part. The dates certainly suggests it could be so. The comics began in a magazine in 1967; more than enough time for a space opera to ferment before a fully-fledged Luke Skywalker took to the stars in 1977.

Whether the theory is fact is difficult to say, but in the new sci-fi action thriller, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, based on those same comics and graphic novels, director Luc Besson appears to have made his own Star Wars, complete with fantastic worlds, a Jabba the Hut-like villain, and a young hero and heroine who zip in and out of adventures at light speeds among the planets in some other galaxy far, far away. But there’s a difference. Imagine the whole film taking place within the Cantina bar with endless holographic possibilities and you get the idea. Valerian is a genuine space oddity, which is why hearing the David Bowie late sixties classic of the same name during the introductory moments may be more appropriate than Besson actually intended.

There’s a strong beginning. After a series of scenes that quickly, and humorously, reveal the development of the space race from 1975 to 2150, backed by a heavily re-cut version of the Bowie song – the lyrics and chorus are altered to accompany the beats of the visual edits – we’re off to somewhere idyllic.

The design of this peaceful, other worldly planet populated by scantily clad stick figures, is the kind you may have seen gracing the cover of an old fifties sci-fi magazine, or maybe an early Arthur C. Clarke novel. The tall, lean, alien race that lives this dreamy, peaceful existence, where clouds are a mixture of fluffy whites, soft pinks, and pastel blues, can’t know it but they are moments away from near obliteration. Explosive remnants of a raging space war fought above their planet will puncture through their atmosphere, crashing on the planet’s surface and destroying their world. What follows once the damage is done is hard to describe. How it read in Besson’s screenplay is unimaginable.

Though we’re never altogether clear of where or why things are happening, Major Valerian (Dane DeHaan) and his partner Sergeant Laureline (Cara Delevingne) are sent by their superiors on a hyperkinetic thrill ride throughout the galaxy, retrieving objects, battling a ceaseless array of aliens, and alternately rescuing each other every few minutes. Along the way they’ll exchange either conversation or gun fire with Rutger Hauer, making a brief appearance as the President of the World State Federation; musician Herbie Hancock as the Defense Minister; an almost unrecognizable Ethan Hawke hamming it up as Jolly the Pimp; plus singer Rihanna as an alien, blue, blob-like creature that shapeshifts while performing exclusively for men on stage. As with the overall design of the film itself, she looks great as her act creatively morphs from Liza Minelli’s Sally Bowles into a series of stunning, sexy, female characters, eventually circling back to Bowles again, but an actress delivering convincing lines she is not.

Somehow, whatever it is Valerian and Laureline are doing has a connection with that earlier planet destruction opening, but with so much adrenaline-fueled, dazzling, busy business occurring, and at such a non-stop, frenetic pace, with a running time of 137 minutes, the whole thing is exhausting long before the grand finale arrives. It’s Besson’s The Fifth Element overstuffed and on speed, if you can picture such a thing.

Surprisingly, during the final fifteen minutes or so, events actually fall into place with an odd sense of clarity. The human villain may be Clive Owen as a ruthless military commander, but the source of his villainy turns out to be greed, capitalism, the economy, and the open market, all in keeping with the spirit of the source material where left-wing liberal ideas backed by a strongly humanist approach peppered those original comic-book stories.

The real problem, however, are those two leads. One is a major, the other a sergeant, and both suggest years of military experience, yet they look fifteen. They’re kids. The actors themselves are considerably older, but their appearance on-screen is one of high-schoolers playing with lasers, and it’s what’s there, up on screen that matters. Perhaps in comic-book form there was an easier level of character acceptability, making the fantasy of two youngster heroes in charge appear the norm, but what works in drawings doesn’t always work on film with actors, and it certainly doesn’t here.

Worse, DeHaan’s title character, who will later admit, “All I do is flirt and joke,” is a stiff. When the film focuses solely on him, with his cavalier attitude and those annoying, smart-aleck remarks, things are never that interesting. Fortunately, when events are centered more on Delevingne’s Laureline, the movie brightens. She may look like a tenth-grader lost in space, but her smart, level-headed, logical attitude, coupled with a little sass, makes the whole thing tick, and the English fashion model turned actress is good at it. Considering her Enchantress in Suicide Squad was such a dud, her space-age sergeant is quite the revelation. Given a sequel, you might be happy to follow the further adventures of Laureline in any galaxy, just as long as she leaves the stiff behind.

MPAA Rating:  PG-!3     Length: 137 Minutes    Overall rating: 6 (out of 10)

Posted in Film

A Ghost Story – Film Review

Is there something there?

It’s the middle of the night. Seconds earlier, a young husband and his wife were lying peaceably in bed in their recently purchased ranch house. Then came the noise; a distinctly loud noise. It sounded as though the wires of the old piano in the living room were just slammed. Definitely the piano. The husband slowly, cautiously, explores. The wife remains back in the bedroom. After a few minutes, the husband returns. Nothing there. “Something must have fallen on the piano,” the husband says.

In writer/director David Lowery’s A Ghost Story, that one, conventional, scare-movie moment is perhaps the only scene that could be said conveys a traditional sense of what a mainstream audience expects in a film about a haunted house. But A Ghost Story is hardly traditional. There is a house, and it’s definitely haunted, but this is not a horror film, nor is it something that will shake your senses or give you sleepless nights. It’s not that kind of film.

The idea for A Ghost Story came to director Lowery after an argument with his wife. They were living in small town Texas when Hollywood beckoned. The issue they faced was should they remain in Texas or should they move to California where the work was? Lowery was directing the Disney remake Pete’s Dragon, and it seemed sensible to make the move. But Lowery didn’t want to go. He liked their house and he liked where he lived. He felt a connection. His wife didn’t understand, and they fought.

In A Ghost Story there are principally three characters; the husband, known only as C (Casey Affleck), the wife, known only as M (Rooney Mara), and the somewhat dilapidated ranch house in Texas. It looks a little rundown on the outside, a good paint job might work, but comfortable within. C likes the house and doesn’t want to move. M is the opposite and doesn’t understand her husband’s connection or his reluctance to leave.

Then the unthinkable happens. C is killed in a head-on collision just steps from his drive. We don’t see the accident or how it happened; it’s not required. We just see the end result. C dies at the wheel, shattered glass on the dashboard before him. But later, at the morgue, something odd happens, and it occurs minutes after M leaves the room, having just seen her husband’s face for one last time; the motionless body lying under the sheet suddenly sits up, still under the sheets.

The idea that when you die you step into whatever is waiting for you in the next spiritual realm is here shown as a brilliantly lighted doorway that opens up at the end of the morgue hallway. C, now clearly a ghost covered in that sheet with holes for eyes, stares at the inviting light, then decides not to go through it. Instead, he takes a left, leaves the building, walks miles across country land, and returns to his grieving wife and the ranch house that meant so much to him. And there he stays.

The connection to his wife, the house, and the space upon which that house was built is too strong for the husband’s spirit to release, so he remains, silently observing while time passes. He’s still there after his wife moves and new people move in. And he’s there when the house is bulldozed. He’s still there in that same space when a high-rise is built. And he waits. He even circles back in time to early American settler days when all that was there was the open land upon which the ranch house will eventually be built, and he’s there when he and his wife move in. And like the reflection of a mirror within a mirror, he sees himself as a white-sheeted ghost, observing everything he had previously seen.

There are so many ways you could explain what A Ghost Story is really about. It’s certainly about love, but it’s also about grief and yearning; space and time; and a connection to things we never realized meant so much. It could also be about a search for meaning when looking back on lives lost. It’s one of the saddest films you’ll ever see. But it’s not a haunted house movie, and it’s not conventional.

Interestingly, there’s another white-sheeted ghost seen through the window in the house next door. They wave at each other and even converse through subtitles. “I’m waiting for someone,” the ghost in the other house relates. “Who?” asks C. “I don’t remember,” comes the subtitled replay.

Filmed with a screen ratio of only 1:33 (the shape of early TV sets; practically a square), director Lowery uses rounded corners to soften the look. He holds moments for lengthy periods without dialog, movement, or cutting away. When M receives a homemade chocolate pie in a round, glass dish from a neighbor, she sits on the floor and takes a bite, then another, then another. The shot lasts for four minutes with M unable to stop eating while the ghostly white sheet with the two black holes for eyes stands motionless just a few feet away, observing.

Running at only 87 minutes, this atmospherically melancholy film is going to test the patience of many. Even those attuned to its style and find it an effective, singular way of exploring its many themes may occasionally squirm in their seat. Once the point appears to be made, all you feel you’re now doing is waiting for the scene that has lingered for so long in one, continuous shot to move on. There’s a lengthy moment when C hovers at a house party. One of the guests seated at a table in the kitchen (Will Oldham) waxes philosophically about life, death, the future, what the end of the world will bring, and Beethoven, while the ninth plays quietly underneath. His meandering though urgent sounding party talk seems to last as long as the symphony itself. After several minutes, you might wish the ghost had turned and eavesdropped on someone less verbose.

A Ghost Story may be a haunting exercise in observing, just as C’s white-sheeted ghost observes, but it’s demanding a lot, particularly when the apparition is not a faded spirit that passes through doors and walls, but rather a symbol, represented by a child’s comical Halloween costume. The audience will be limited. The film is the kind best appreciated by other filmmakers and students who’ll enjoy the post-film discussion. Even the art-house crowd will be divided.

MPAA Rating: R     Length: 87 Minutes     Overall Rating: 6 (out of 10)

Posted in Film

War for the Planet of the Apes – Film Review

Despite the obvious technical advantages of computer imagery and its visual effects, up until now, the reboot Planet of the Apes series had yet to resonate in the way the 1968 original did. Certainly, the new films are popular. There wouldn’t be a third if they weren’t. But there’s a divided audience; those eager for more, and those indifferent. Maybe it’s because the first of the reboots, fun though it was, left little impact. And the second, as accomplished a sci-fi thriller that it proved to be, ultimately suffered a similar fate: nothing left once it was done.

But now there’s a third, and from Rise, then Dawn and now War for the Planet of the Apes, there’s a difference in the telling, and it makes for one intelligent, absorbing, and thoroughly entertaining movie. This is the one the series needed, and if as an audience member you were one among the indifferent, seeing War could change attitudes; the film engages from the start.

It’s two years since the last adventure. Having formed the basis of English in the first outing where he declared, “No!”, Caesar (Andy Serkis) can now converse in the language as well as any intelligent human. And that intelligence has spread among both his immediate family and his dedicated ape followers; their speaking abilities haven’t formed to the level of their revolutionary leader but their ability to understand has, and they communicate with grunts and sign-language.

The Simian Flu virus that accidentally spread around the planet has now divided camps. On one side are the apes, growing with intelligence, while on the other with what remains of the human population, the opposite is occurring. Those exposed to the virus will likely lose their ability to speak, then ultimately lose their ability to intelligent reason. In order to stem the tide of the effect and to restore leadership on the planet, soldiers are hunting apes and killing them.

In an attack that results with the death of his wife and one of his sons, lead by a man known only as the Colonel (Woody Harrelson), Caesar sets out on a mission of revenge, accompanied by three of his faithful; the benevolent orangutan, Maurice (Karin Konoval), the loyal chimpanzee, Rocket (Terry Notary) and the trustworthy gorilla, Luca (Michael Adamthwaite). The ape has learned of the whereabouts of the Colonel’s campsite, and it’s Caesar’s intention to confront him.

But as the journey across a frozen landscape continues, conflicts among the journeying apes develop as personal truths and intentions are revealed. There’s never a time when your sympathies are with anyone other than the apes, particularly Caesar, who has gone through so much pain and heartache to become the character he is. Had the chimp been human, you would certainly feel that way. The fact that he’s an ape makes little difference, particularly when Caesar’s enemy, the Colonel, is portrayed as such a villainous nutcase with an unrelenting murderous nature against all apes.

When Caesar first encounters the Colonel, the man’s face is painted in black streaks, reminiscent of Brando’s Kurtz at his nuttiest, and like that demi-god with his terrifying vigilante code, this colonel possesses his own heart of darkness, one that for reasons later explained will never see the light.

If Apocalypse Now springs to mind, so too will The Great Escape. Culminating with an exciting rescue mission regarding an encampment of slave apes worked until they’re starved, and tunnels to aid in their release while Caesar confronts the Colonel, War for the Planet of the Apes ends on a nail-biter made all the more effective because of the time invested in caring for the outcome; and there’s no predicting how it will all end – there are twists in the telling – which makes the final battle, the war of the title, all the better.

A major strength of the film is that it doesn’t rush to action. After a violent, confrontational beginning, the bulk of the story unfolds less as an action/thriller and more as a drama, drawing you in, making you care about the outcome as those four apes journey on horseback in search of the Colonel’s concentration camp.

Along the way, two well drawn and likable characters will appear, adding an overall richness to what is happening. One is another talking and slightly off-center chimpanzee who lived in a zoo before the flu broke out, Bad Ape (Steve Zahn, delivering most of the film’s intentional humor), and a sweet young, mute orphan (Amiah Miller) to whom Maurice takes a parental, protective liking. He even dubs her Nova.

While the reboot bares little to almost no resemblance in both tone and look to the original series, there are knowing, respectful nods to characters from the sixties. Caesar the revolutionary was the name given to Roddy McDowall’s character in the latter two films that concluded the original story, while Cornelius, here the name given to one of Caesar’s two sons, was the doctor’s name McDowall played in the 1968 series opener. Maurice the orangutan is an acknowledgment to the original science minister orangutan Dr. Zaius played by actor Maurice Evans, and by naming the mute child Nova, you’re immediately reminded of the mute adult female of the same name in the original, played by Linda Harrison. Their reveals are more reverent than humorous. And there’s more if you look for them.

Caesar’s other young son, Blue Eyes, was the nickname given to Charlton Heston’s astronaut, plus, look for a poster that has the quote The Only Good Ape is a Dead Ape splashed across it; it’s a variation of a quote from the original sequel, Beneath the Planet of the Apes, spoken by a gorilla general in a rousing speech, except there the references were to humans.

The original series began with a surprise and an impact that lasted, even if the subsequent sequels lacked with each new chapter. With the reboot, the new surprise is that the series appears to be heading in the other direction; film number three is by far the superior. Like Caesar’s knowledge of the English language, things are developing into something far more intelligent than expected.

MPAA Rating: PG-13    Length: 142 Minutes    Overall Rating: 8 (out of 10)

Posted in Film