REVIEW: War for the Planet of the Apes

16 07 2017

Though its title may lead you to believe otherwise, Matt Reeves’ “War for the Planet of the Apes” shows precious little war. There are extended action sequences, but nothing rises to the level of a full battle. This is not a war movie, at least not in the traditional sense in which audiences are conditioned to perceive one. It’s not about the fights; rather, it’s about what we seek to preserve by fighting them in the first place.

Caesar (once again masterfully brought to life by Andy Serkis) and his band of apes that believe in their right to receive dignified treatment find themselves in an asymmetrical fight with the humans. The original intelligent inhabiters of earth, backed into a corner after the Simian Flu decimates their kind, do not exactly take kindly to sharing their planet with another sentient species. The apes are fighting a war of ideals – for peace, unity and solidarity. The humans are fighting a war of extermination, one where the only measure of victory is the complete degradation and eradication of their opponent.

As a viewer in 2017, I could not help but see parallels between the ape-human conflict and the current war against ISIS. The men who pervert Islam’s tenets can claim a win on their battleground when their actions force the western world to abandon their principles. If we choose to fight as they fight, responding to barbarity with inhumanity, we cede to their strategy and expose our own hollowness.

But as “War for the Planet of the Apes” drew on (and it does so perhaps more than it should), it became clear to me that Reeves had far more on his mind with the film than just the conflict du jour. This entire iteration of the franchise smartly avoids tying itself entirely to the events surrounding its making. Indeed, recent rewatches of 2011’s “Rise” and 2014’s “Dawn” already indicate the series’ malleability to the whims of the present; both films feel as if they refer to something entirely separate from what they did upon release. The “War” of Reeves’ film is not a war but all wars. It’s a rap sheet against human atrocity justified by armed conflict from, one could argue, biblical times to our contemporary ones.

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REVIEW: Captain Fantastic

3 08 2016

Most movies about adventures into the wilderness center around the themes of getting in touch with one’s primal instincts or returning to some sense of balance with nature. Matt Ross’ “Captain Fantastic” is not most movies, though.

Viggo Mortensen’s Ben Cash raises his family of six children to live in harmony with the environment to an extent, but this is far from the traditional feral child model. They live in somewhat of a liberal arts experiment taken to a logical extreme where, removed from the supposed silliness of socially constructed rules and traditions, Ben can provide the kids with an environment of pure rationality and intelligence in which to develop. We’re talking people who celebrate Noam Chomsky Day over Christmas, people.

Ben’s ascetic cult of authenticity, cast as a utopia, may well be a vision of the world in a not-too-distant future should the slow march of progress continue in its current direction. While “Captain Fantastic” does often assume the posture of defending the inherent virtues of the idea, Ross hardly lets Ben off easy. What Ben might envision as a microcosm of a perfectible society also looks a lot like a more rustic version of the ivory tower mentality. A portion of America has let their rationality drive them into enclaves of self-selected intellectual peers, where cognitive gifts fan the flames of their own egos rather than stoking necessary social change.

Mortensen’s performance comes to embody the tough realization of the film. As he confronts the passing of his wife and the grief of his family, Ben’s plain-spoken literalism creates more problems than it solves. Years in the wilderness indoctrinating his children with the intelligence of textbooks has left him blinded to the need for emotional intelligence and empathy in the wake of tragedy. Despite some real quirks in his character, Mortensen keeps an impressively even keel as he slowly comes to realize the impracticality of many principles to which he has dedicated his life.

“Captain Fantastic” does not implode Ben’s self-confidence all at once. The film erodes it gradually to devastating effect. Ross favors slowly peeling off the band-aid that covers decades of resentment, equivocation and hurt. The process stings for everyone involved, characters and audience. But expression is ultimately more valuable than repression, and something tells me that Ben could find a philosopher to cite in regards to why that is so. B+3stars





F.I.L.M. of the Week (January 3, 2014)

3 01 2014

Tom Hanks, even at the relatively young age of 57, is such a legend of the screen that every role he takes is reason for excitement.  (Unless it’s “Larry Crowne.”)  2013 graced us with not just one but TWO Hanks performances in “Captain Phillips” and “Saving Mr. Banks,” at least one of which is likely to result in an Oscar nomination.  The two-time winner hardly needs any recognition for his acting prowess, nor does he need to be lauded for his producing skills (the man has 5 Emmys sitting on his mantle).

What does deserve some attention, though, is Hanks’ directorial debut “That Thing You Do.” (We’ll just pretend “Larry Crowne” didn’t happen, just like American audiences did.)  My pick for “F.I.L.M. of the Week” shows a fun-loving, crowd-pleasing side to Hanks that will make you wish he was sitting in the director’s chair as often as the producer’s seat.

The film follows a would-be Beatles boy band, the Wonders (formerly the One-Ders), as they rise from garage obscurity to Billboard chart-topping fame.  None of it would have happened, though, without the inspired improvisation of replacement drummer Guy (Tom Everett Scott) that turns the song “That Thing You Do” from a ballad into an up-tempo rock ‘n’ roll number.  From there, they acquire a swanky manager played by Hanks himself, go on tour, perform on television … and deal with all the motion sickness caused by such a meteoric ascent to stardom.

Thanks to HBO, I’ve seen “That Thing You Do” dozens of times over the past 15 years or so, and I’ve never tired of it.  (For that same reason, I’ve only seen it start to finish a handful of times.)  Similarly, I still listen to the movie’s soundtrack frequently; it’s got a number of ditties that you can have stuck in your head for days.  The whole movie, really, is such a delight.  It’s a toe-tapper of a musical with plenty of dramatic tension and rich characters that’s wonderfully orchestrated by Maestro Hanks.





F.I.L.M. of the Week (February 4, 2011)

4 02 2011

Surely I can’t be the only one who’s a little shocked that Christian Bale is just receiving his first Oscar nomination, and if there’s any justice in the world, his incredible performance in “The Fighter” will earn him a statue on his first time to the big dance.  Bale is one heck of an actor who really can do it all: headline blockbusters like “The Dark Knight” and “Terminator: Salvation” but also step into unconventional leading man roles in independent movies such as “Rescue Dawn,” my pick for the “F.I.L.M. of the Week.”

Bale plays real-life Dieter Dengler, a U.S. military pilot shot down over Laos in the early years of the nation’s involvement with Vietnam.  He survives the crash and attempts to run to safety, but he gets caught by hostile militant forces who take him to a P.O.W. camp.  There, Dieter meets other prisoners, including Duane (Steve Zahn) and Gene (Jeremy Davies), all gaunt from their extended stays.

Dieter won’t be held back or held in and almost instantaneously begins plans for escape.  After getting the lay of the land, it takes him a while to find the perfect way and the perfect time.  He and Duane manage to get away unscathed, but that leaves the two of them with very little food in the middle of the jungles of Laos.  Lost and desperate, the two embark on a journey for survival that is both harrowing and inspiring.

Sure, Bale makes another one of his trademark physical transformations to make the role believable; however, this is not what makes “Rescue Dawn” such a fantastic watch.  It’s his emotional transformation that’s so gripping. Bale’s stripping away of all acting instincts to portray the most primal instincts with such raw power is nothing short of astonishing.  (And on a lesser note, will someone give Steve Zahn his own movie?  The guy kills every supporting role has gets – it’s time for him to move up to the big leagues.)