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: Wilson

27 03 2017

Sundance Film Festival

Somehow, despite it being my most anticipated film of Sundance, I wound up at the second screening of Craig Johnson’s “Wilson” while virtually everyone else I knew got tickets to the premiere. More than one person cautioned me that Woody Harrelson’s eponymous character, based on graphic artist Daniel Clowes’ creation, was so intensely dyspeptic that he was basically unlikable.

Now, to be clear, I often love unlikable characters. And when I sat down to watch the film, I did not find Wilson difficult to watch or enjoy. In fact, his particular brand of thorniness was quite a welcome contemporary spin on the garden-variety curmudgeon. In typical Harrelson fashion, the character is a foul-mouthed prankster determined never to take a moment too seriously or treat a person with full respect. But Wilson is something different. As he repels nearly everyone with whom he makes contact, he also tries to cure them of the modern malaise of isolation. Whether in the form of phones, technology or a hermetic bubble of their own choosing, Wilson violates arbitrary decorum to highlight the absurdity of our perpetual estrangement.

I read Clowes’ graphic novel over a year ago anticipating a 2016 Sundance bow for “Wilson” (full disclosure: I am well acquainted with the film’s director), and my faint recollection of the text relies on a simple joke structure where Wilson reacts with predictable atrophy at whatever situation thrown at him. Clowes’ script for the film, which included some input by Johnson, takes the character in a much more interesting direction. It’s similarly episodic, though the narrative quest of reuniting with his estranged wife Pippi (Laura Dern) to track down his previously assumed aborted daughter Claire (Isabella Amara) does provide “Wilson” with some structure.

The differentiating factor is that Wilson himself feels much freer and open as a character, which in turn makes his exploits far more interesting to observe. In Harrelson’s hands, he’s more than just a human incarnation of Oscar the Grouch. Wilson has some inner joy, some of which simply manifests itself in caustic comments that make others uncomfortable. Johnson and Clowes create a world in which everyone else is far too comfortable, perhaps even complacent, that they need Wilson to shake them out of their stillness. Watching the disruption proves quite entertaining. B+





REVIEW: The Edge of Seventeen

14 12 2016

“I’m going to kill myself,” proudly proclaims the protagonist of “The Edge of Seventeen,” Hailee Steinfeld’s Nadine Franklin … as her first line. At such an early stage in the story, it’s hard to tell whether we should take her literally or seriously. By the end of the film, however, we get our answer: neither.

Pardon the brief soapbox moment, but teenage depression and even suicide are not matters purely relegated to the realm of fiction. I’ve known people who struggled after a tragic loss like Nadine’s (her beloved father at age 13), taken pain medications and seen therapists. Unfortunately, I’ve also seen a fair share who took their own life.

These are real issues that rarely get honest depictions on-screen, and writer/director Kelly Fremon Craig might have been wise to lean into them. Instead, Nadine is a character who gets all the narrative benefits of an outwardly depressed character while “The Edge of Seventeen” on the whole skirts responsibility for dealing with the seriousness of the problem. Craig bends over backwards to make sure we know that she’s not like regular teenagers, she’s a justifiably angsty teenager! Yet once it becomes clear that she really needs professional help, the film makes it all too easy for one kind act to lead to a personal revelation that turns back time.

It’s really too bad that “The Edge of Seventeen” lacks the teeth in its bite because Craig is unapologetic in making Nadine one of the meanest main characters in recent memory. She is incapable of leaving a conversation that she has not “won,” and if she cannot achieve victory on the strength of her own arguments, Nadine will kamikaze by lobbing a vicious insult. Around the point when she defeatedly declares, “I have to spend the rest of my life with myself,” I realized that she is essentially Anna Kendrick’s Twitter feed personified – just with double the self-loathing and half the self-aware charm.

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REVIEW: Now You See Me 2

10 06 2016

Can two rabbits come out of the same metaphorical hat? Or two tricks from the same sleeve? Jon M. Chu’s “Now You See Me 2” does not really attempt such a feat. Rather than make a straightforward sequel to the 2013 magician caper, it goes in a totally new direction – essentially functioning like an “Ocean’s 11” style heist film. This entertains, sure, but it feels like a betrayal of the series’ core conceits.

The more interesting change from predecessor to sequel, however, is the transition of target for the magicians-cum-social crusaders known as the Four Horsemen. In the first film, their Robin Hood act harnessed the populist rage of the Occupy movement and used their cunning to get back at financiers who profited off the recession. Now, they face down a titan of technology with tyrannical aspirations of acquiring a chip that can surveil and sabotage any network on Earth. (On a pedantic note, it’s somewhat disappointing – yet maybe somewhat admirable – that the businessman is played by Daniel Radcliffe and no meta magic jokes are made around his appearance.)

Like “Spectre” last year, “Now You See Me 2” dives headfirst into Snowden-era debates over digital privacy. It only offers real commentary about the freedom from being seen in its conclusion, another predictably drawn-out labyrinthine affair. The film is primarily focused on the thrill; perhaps as it should be. When highly focused, as in an extended sequence showing the slight-of-hand of the disappearing card trick, it rightly claims the descriptor of “magical.”

But more often, it’s a lot of back-and-forth banter between the bickering magicians. The new presence of Lizzy Caplan’s enchantress Lula, a one-note annoying chatterbox with an aggravating infatuation for Dave Franco’s Jack Wilder, makes the interactions chafe a little more than before. Their dynamics feel like a potential deleted storyline from 2009’s “The Proposal,” the only other writing credit from “Now You See Me 2” scripter Pete Chiarelli. His sensibility coexists somewhat uneasily with writer Ed Solomon – the only credited writer returning from the original – whose previous work includes buddy action flicks like “Men in Black” and “Charlie’s Angels.” Their tag team gives the film a little bit of everything, just not a whole lot of consistency. C+ / 2stars





REVIEW: Triple 9

7 03 2016

John Hillcoat’s “Triple 9” makes for quintessential tough cinema – and in more ways than one. It’s hard-edged in content as a brutal crime plot breaks out in the Atlanta underworld but also somewhat tough in form; Matt Cook’s screenplay proves challenging to follow as more than broad strokes on many occasions. The sprawling tale of interwoven cops, criminals and robbers weaves a complicated web of characters.

Yet while the lack of numerous balls juggled during “Triple 9” are somewhat of a liability, they also become a strength when events take a brutally ironic turn in the second half. The film becomes almost like a classic piece of Russian literature with its cruel reversals of fate, though Cook somewhat overloads the dramatic irony by having characters mull over the impossible “coincidence” time and again. With lightly sketched characters, they become less like people and more akin to pieces to form an allegory about humanity as a whole.

Even without much in the way of characterization, the actors still shine through, namely Casey Affleck as the film’s de facto moral center, officer Chris Allen. (Others, like Aaron Paul and Kate Winslet, play up glorified caricatures.) Meanwhile, editor Dylan Tichenor, the man who cut masterpieces as varied as “Boogie Nights” and “Zero Dark Thirty,” provides excellent tension as Allen falls into the crosshairs of cops who serve the local Russian mafia bosses. The two of them almost manage to turn the film into a Coen-esque spin on a tale like “The Departed.” But even a watered-down version of that idyllic fantasy film would be worth watching – as “Triple 9” is, too. B2halfstars





REVIEW: The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2

20 11 2015

Much like the “Harry Potter” series, the final installment of “The Hunger Games” departs radically from the formula of all entries that came prior. “Mockingjay – Part 2” does not actually feature the Hunger Games themselves, the main event that involves children killing children to placate the masses of a dystopian future. Without this intense action set piece to which the story can build, everything else cannot help but feel like a bit of a letdown.

“Mockingjay,” for many fans of the series, represented the least of Suzanne Collins’ books. So, in a sense, it is not terribly surprising that “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2” ends on a similarly underwhelming note. But even that is unlikely to put a damper on what will surely be one of the highest grossing films of the year; the four-year relationship Jennifer Lawrence built between viewers and her Katniss Everdeen is truly remarkable.

Without the games, “Mockingjay – Part 2” seems rather confused as to what kind of movie it wants to be. Some aspects of political semantic games and propaganda messaging remain from Part 1, primarily at the outset. These leftovers just further serve to reinforce the sense that a two-part finale was an unnecessary protraction of events.

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REVIEW: Out of the Furnace

11 09 2015

Out of the FurnaceThe small town, blue-collar workers in Scott Cooper’s “Out of the Furnace” are disappearing both from America and from the silver screen.  They deserve better than what they get here, a gritty realism riddled with clichéd storytelling conventions.

Cooper covers a lot of that up with a great cast that turns in predictably solid, if not dazzling, performances.  The explosiveness of Christian Bale, Woody Harrelson, and Casey Affleck in one movie alone is a sight to see no matter what. But it should be a powder keg, not a few sparks flying.

The film should receive some credit for being one of few to tackle the home-front experiences of Iraq War veterans like Affleck’s Rodney Baze.  He’s completely volatile, a pugnacious time bomb who will detonate if he cannot pulverize someone with his fists.  But everyone else in the Pennsylvania Rust Belt town in “Out of the Furnace” who tries to either defuse him or encourage him just fails to light up the screen in any way, shape, or form.

For a film whose title refers to an object capable of generating high temperatures, “Out of the Furnace” packs remarkably little heat.  C / 2stars