War for the Planet of the Apes (2017)

2017 #98
Matt Reeves | 140 mins | cinema (3D) | 2.35:1 | USA / English & American Sign Language | 12A / PG-13

War for the Planet of the Apes

Previously on Planet of the Apes… the rise of intelligence in apes resulted in them establishing a new ape society in the woods. After humanity was mostly wiped out by disease, the actions of a few apes, still angry about their treatment at the hands of humans, led to the dawn of war began between peaceful apes and vengeful humans.

Now, ape leader Caesar (Andy Serkis) has been in hiding for years. After a human sortie into the forest leads to them finally discovering his location, the Colonel (Woody Harrelson) executes a stealth assault on the apes’ home. Incensed, Caesar and a small band of his most dedicated followers set out to find the humans’ stronghold and bring the Colonel to justice, hopefully ending the war in the process.

When it was announced that the follow-up to Dawn of the Planet of the Apes was going to be titled War for the Planet of the Apes, it only made sense. The previous film ended with that war beginning, for one thing. More than that, the clear point of this prequel trilogy has been to show how the world as we know it ended up on the path to becoming the one Charlton Heston encountered in the original Planet of the Apes — and you just knew mankind wasn’t going to give up without a fight, making some kind of war all but inevitable. However, as it turns out, the title is almost a misnomer.

Cheeky monkeys

This is not a war movie in the sense of it being two hours of epic battles. There’s a set-to at the start (one which reminded me of the opening of Saving Private Ryan without in any meaningful way being a rip off of it), and a big battle forms the backdrop to the climax, but in between the film is something else. Or, rather, somethings else: there are multiple genres one could cite as an influence on the film as it transitions betweens phases of its story. There’s a bit of the “men apes on a mission” thing going on, with an edge of the Western in there, before it turns into a POW camp movie of sorts, with a healthy dose of Apocalypse Now for good measure. If that makes it sound restless, it’s not; it’s just not beholden to picking one set of tropes and sticking to them — it goes where its story dictates. That works.

Similarly, the film is a tonal masterclass: as befits the subject matter of its title, there is grim and serious stuff here, but it’s laced with splashes of comedy, heartfelt emotion, moral debate, and social commentary, the vast majority of which is handled with understatement rather than Hollywood grandstanding. And if there’s one throughline to connect all this, it’s the characters. In a summer blockbuster?! I know, right? But that’s been a marker of quality throughout this new Apes trilogy: a willingness to be thoughtful and considered, not just trade on shoot-outs and explosions.

Military might

Andy Serkis is once again phenomenal in the lead role. Caesar’s story this time is almost Shakespearean, the film’s biggest war being his internal battle over the right course to take, and what his desired actions mean for his soul. He was always the sensible, reasonable, merciful ape, but events provoke another side in him — is he just like his old enemy Koba after all? Through him the film considers themes like justice vs revenge, the needs of the few vs the needs of the many, the rights and wrongs of actions in wartime. Caesar may be the hero, but he’s certainly not perfect.

On the flip side, Woody Harrelson is a clear-cut villain — a heartless bastard; a thoroughly nasty piece of work… or so it seems, because, when he eventually gets a chance to state his case, to explain where he’s coming from, the things he’s seen and decisions he’s had to make, you can see understand his point of view. That doesn’t mean we necessarily agree (it’s pretty clear that, like Kurtz, he’s gone off the reservation), but it does make him a character rather than a cardboard cutout. As the film manoeuvres its way around these two characters, their differences and similarities, It’s abundantly clear that this is a much more complex film than your usual blockbuster fare of “always-right good guys shoot at thoroughly-evil bad guys”.

Talk with the animals... or not

Serkis and Harrelson are the stand outs, but there are brilliant performances elsewhere. Steve Zahn plays a character called Bad Ape, who’s both funny and touching, while Amiah Miller is a human girl the apes pick up on their travels, and the way she conveys a genuine emotional connection with the apes helps to sell them as real characters. Not that the CGI work of Weta needs much help there — it’s one again phenomenal, so real you don’t even think about it anymore. They had to break new ground for Dawn, for the first time taking performance capture outside of specially-designed studios (aka The Volume) and onto location filming. Perhaps that innovation explains why some of Matt Reeves’ direction last time was a little stilted and TV-ish. More years of development have removed those constraints, however, and his work on War is marvellously cinematic.

It’s also a true trilogy capper. They may choose to continue the story after this point (we’re still a couple of thousand years away from Charlton Heston showing up), but if they don’t then this will happily serve as an ending. I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that, although each film of this prequel trilogy has been quite distinct (pleasingly so, I’d say), there’s still a sense of this one rounding off things that were set in motion back in the first movie. There are also Easter egg-like nods and hints towards the original film; and to some its sequels too, apparently (I’ve not seen those yet so I’ll have to take other people’s word for it).

They don't wanna be like you-ooh-ooh

War for the Planet of the Apes is possibly not the movie we were expecting, but that’s no bad thing. I’m not sure how well it’ll go down with the crowd that pushes things like Transformers 5 to over $500m (and counting), but it has to be applauded for sneaking emotionally and thematically considered material into a huge-budget summer blockbuster. It’s not just great science fiction, it’s great drama. It’s also cemented these Apes prequels as arguably the greatest movie trilogy of the decade.

5 out of 5

War for the Planet of the Apes is in cinemas most places now.

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The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1 (2014)

2015 #127
Francis Lawrence | 123 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

If you’re not au fait with the first two Hunger Games movies, there’s nothing for you here. Why would you want to join a story halfway through anyway?

Even for those of us who are, Mockingjay Part 1 — the first half of a two-part finale that, for my money, plays more like its own standalone movie than most first halves of two-part finales manage (I’m thinking of Deathly Hallows 1 or The Matrix Reloaded here) — throws us in at the deep end, starting a little while after the end of the last film and challenging us to keep up. It’s a little frustrating at times — if you’ve not watched the previous movies into the ground, there are points where you wonder if you’ve forgotten something or just not been told it yet — but ultimately helps make for an engrossing, mature movie.

Naturally I mean “mature” in the sense of “grown up”, not in the oft-misused sense of “for adults only, wink wink”. This is a thoughtful film, one which has more time for examining issues of politicking than for bang-bang-a-boom fight scenes. Indeed, if you’ve come looking for an action movie — as, it seems, most critics did — then you’ll definitely be disappointed. If, however, you’re looking for a film to continue the series’ rich vein of sci-fi political allegory, well, you’re in luck. This edition: propaganda.

In the previous films, heroine Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) inadvertently inspired a rebellion against the ruling Capitol, which has been bubbling away without her knowledge. Now, having been targeted by evil President Snow (Donald Sutherland), she’s been transported to the underground locales of District 13, where they want to put her in films to continue spreading dissension among the other districts. At the same time, the Capitol are putting Katniss’ captured lover Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) on the air, arguing for peace and maintaining the status quo. It’s a war of hearts and minds, essentially, as both sides attempt to rally ordinary people to their cause through the power of the media. It’s a tale that’s as timely as ever, surely.

One of my favourite elements here is the distrust that both sides engender. The rebels Katniss has found herself with are certainly the good guys, battling to overthrow an abusively oppressive regime, but they aren’t whiter-than-white — they won’t always do everything our hero would like; she’s not always sure she can trust them. There’s no doubt about which side is the right one to be on, but it’s at least a little more complex than the norm.

Katniss herself remains a refreshingly un-self-assured heroine. She doesn’t always know or do what’s right, she isn’t always sure of her purpose or her goals, or even her own feelings. That’s so much more human than so many movie heroes, no doubt in part thanks to having an Oscar-able actress to carry the role. True, we’ve seen these facets before from her in both of the previous films, but hurrah to author Suzanne Collins and to the filmmakers for not taking the simple route of having her transform into something she didn’t start as. There’s still a whole outstanding film to bring about such a change, of course, so we’ll just have to wait and see how they follow this through to the end.

The fact there will be another film is an undoubted point of contention. The Hunger Games is the latest to follow in Harry Potter’s footsteps and split the final book of a series in two when filmed. Indeed, since Twilight latched onto that bandwagon it’s become de rigueur, with the final-book-split usually announced as soon as the first film in a wannabe-series is a box office hit — see the Divergent series, for example (or The Maze Runner for one that supposedly won’t succumb to this). Despite the complaints from many other critics and viewers, I must say that (as someone who hasn’t read the book) it didn’t feel overly like the first half of something longer to me. Of course there’s a cliffhanger and stuff, but there was at the end of the last film as well. This is no worse than that. If anything, I felt Mockingjay Part 1 built to its ending more successfully — I was quite surprised when Catching Fire stopped, whereas here the ending felt like a natural stopping point. In fact, given the point some of the storylines reach, it’s difficult to imagine them feeling anything other than rushed if they’d been executed in half the time. Maybe the film is a little drawn out in places and some storylines could’ve been condensed (how many propaganda films do we need to see Katniss make, really?), but that’s a niggle about perhaps wanting a minor trim, not a complaint decrying the need for full-blown editorial intervention.

Whether or not this Part 1 stands alone will be cemented by the next film, I feel. If the focus on using Katniss as no more than a propaganda figurehead isn’t continued in Part 2 then, well, that’s the part of the story that this film is about. It doesn’t feel like it needs to be continued next time — that particular propaganda angle has been fully explored — and so I think this instalment will feel much more like a fully-fledged film in its own right if they just move on. I hope the final film give us new themes, new subplots, new arcs to follow; I hope it feels like Part 4 of 4, in the way this currently feels like Part 3 of 4, and doesn’t play as Part 3B of 3 and retroactively transform this into Part 3A.

If you like a lot of Hunger Games action from your Hunger Games movie, Mockingjay Part 1 will certainly be a disappointment. On the other hand, if you more enjoy the political satire side of the series, it may be your favourite instalment so far (and you wouldn’t be alone in that view). For me, Catching Fire is the best of the three because it crystallises both of those constituent elements; and if the first film was purely the action side (with a bit of the politics), then here we find its mirror image: purely politics (with a bit of action). Either way, perhaps the ultimate fate of all these films rests on how well the next, final part can bring all their action, themes, and plots to fruition.

4 out of 5

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1 is available on Netflix UK from today.

Now You See Me (2013)

2015 #79
Louis Leterrier | 115 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA & France / English | 12 / PG-13

Louis Leterrier, helmer of the Clash of the Titans remake everyone would rather forget and the Marvel Cinematic Universe movie everyone does forget, directs this magic-inspired thriller — a film all about misdirection that pretty successfully pulls off one of its own.

Four low-key magicians (Jesse Eisenberg, Isla Fisher, Woody Harrelson, Dave Franco) are brought together by a mysterious, unseen other to stage a massive Las Vegas show, in which they teleport an audience member to a bank in Paris and rob it. But they didn’t, of course, because magic isn’t real. Or did they? So begins a cat-and-mouse tale, as the FBI (represented by Mark Ruffalo) and Interpol (represented by Mélanie Laurent) chase their ever-mounting criminal campaign, followed by a magic debunker (Morgan Freeman) and big-money investor (Michael Caine).

Really, the whole film works on many of the same principles as a magic show: it’s there to dazzle you, confound you, make you guess how the tricks were done. That there’s eventually a reveal and a twist is an end unto itself, regardless of the believability of the plot or the depth of the characters (neither of which you get in most magic shows, of course). Personally, I love magic, and I love finding out the truth behind it, so both of those boxes were ticked for me. OK, this isn’t real magic, a fact only emphasised by an over-reliance on CGI at times; but it plays by enough of the right rules to work for most of its running time.

That seems to have made it pretty divisive, however. Reading online comments, it’s a real love-it-or-hate-it movie, in quite a literal sense — some people properly despise it. Their criticisms aren’t wholly unfounded: the characters are thin; at times it’s unclear which side we’re meant to be following or most invested in; the use of CGI in the magic somewhat undermines it; a good deal of the plot stretches credibility. Conversely, the credibility is questionable from very early on, so the counterargument goes that it’s the whole MO of the film — you don’t complain about Iron Man not being possible in real life, do you?

The biggest flaw is perhaps that of the characters and the issue of whose side we’re meant to be on: at times it seems like we’re meant to consider the magicians the good guys; at others, the agents chasing them. Does the film want to have it both ways? It can’t, either because that’s never possible or because Leterrier and co aren’t up to pulling it off. Nonetheless, there’s not enough time invested in any of the characters. When at the end one of the magicians comments that they’ve “had an incredible year together”, we just have to take them at their word because we’ve not seen any of it, not even a montage. That preserves the film’s mysteries, but when every character is hiding something — or if they’re not, we need to suspect they might be — it’s hard to relate to any of them. For me this isn’t a huge issue — I can live without likeable or engaging characters when the film has other stuff going on — but I know it’s a deal-breaker for some.

If nothing else, the film is slickly made, the camerawork and editing swish and flashy in a good way. Again, some people don’t approve of this aspect, but I don’t quite understand people who criticise it. I don’t mean people who criticise the film for just being those things, people who want it to offer more in terms of character or plot because they think it’s lacking — that’s a fair enough accusation. But why is a slick/swish/flashy style inherently bad in and of itself? Such a style certainly fits the magic world. I guess it’s just not to everyone’s taste.

Ultimately, Now You See Me is no more than an entertaining thrill ride; the kind of film that races breathlessly ahead so as you don’t have time to think too deeply about its mysteries, or its plot holes. Clearly it’s an experience you have to get on board with or you’ll loathe it, but, personally, I was entertained and thrilled.

4 out of 5

Jesse Eisenberg’s new movie, American Ultra, is flopping in the US now and out in UK cinemas from September 4th.

Seven Psychopaths (2012)

2015 #72
Martin McDonagh | 110 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | UK / English & Vietnamese | 15 / R

Seven PsychopathsThe writer-director and star of In Bruges re-team for the former’s sophomore feature; and if that doesn’t sound oddball enough for you, the lead cast is rounded out by Sam Rockwell, Woody Harrelson and Christopher Walken. Zaniness is sure to ensue.

Colin Farrell is Marty, a screenwriter struggling with his new work (all he has is a title). Rockwell is his best friend, Billy, who kidnaps dogs and then returns them for the reward money. Walken is Hans, his associate in this enterprise, whose wife is dying of cancer. Harrelson is Charlie, a violence-inclined mob boss who loves his Shih Tzu, Bonny… which brings trouble to everyone’s door when Billy dognaps her (of course).

So, the inciting incident is Billy taking the Shih Tzu. The film’s US tagline was, “They Won’t Take Any Shih Tzu”. I get the pun, but c’mon, there must be a version of it that makes sense!

The film itself is similarly laden with decent ideas that somehow just miss the mark. It feels sloppily told — not badly made, but awkwardly put together. There are some hilarious bits scattered about, which do at least make it feel worthwhile, but in between there’s so much darn filler. It needs a good trim. Heck, it needs a good structure. Writer-director Martin McDonagh seems to think he can get away with this, and plentiful other storytelling oddities, Re-writingmainly via references to Farrell’s endeavours to pen a movie called, you guessed it, Seven Psychopaths. One wonders if there’s a hefty dose of autobiography in the writer’s struggle…

Perhaps this explains why McDonagh has produced a screenplay that feels kinda dated — with its talkative characters, violent crime story, and irreverent humour, it’s all very post-Tarantino. 20 years on from Reservoir Dogs, isn’t it time for something else? As Hans puts it when they’re all striving to improve Marty’s screenplay, “You’re the one who thought psychopaths were so interesting. They get kinda tiresome after a while, don’t you think?”

Seven Psychopaths has its merits — some bits are very funny indeed, even if they’re fleeting — but your tolerance for shaggy dog stories will determine how much enjoyment you get out of it. As a follow-up to the genius of In Bruges, it’s nought but a disappointment.

3 out of 5

The UK TV premiere of Seven Psychopaths is on Channel 4 tonight at 10pm.

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (2013)

2014 #15
Francis Lawrence | 146 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 + 1.78:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

The Hunger Games: Catching FireJennifer Lawrence (who, depending on your mileage, is either “the most charming young movie star in, like, forever” or “actually kind of a little bit irritating”) returns as the totally-plausibly-named Katniss Everdeen in this super-successful follow-up to the super-successful kids’ young adult novel adaptation that’s kinda like the new Twilight only actually quite good.*

Having struck a PR blow to the ruling elite by forcing their hand at the end of the previous Hunger Games, joint winners Katniss and Peeta (pronounced “Peter” (Josh Hutcherson)) are back home. But not for long, because in an attempt to reassert control it’s decided the forthcoming 75th Hunger Games will feature previous combatants — and Katniss and Peeta are their District’s only choice. Cue an almost-rehash of the first film, but with different burgeoning political undertones, and the added twist of the competitors all being previous winners. There are much bigger twists than that coming, though…

Indeed, perhaps the most striking part of Catching Fire is its ending. That’s not to say the rest of the film isn’t entertaining — it really is, but it’s a variation on a theme; that theme being “the first one again”, even if this is arguably a superior version. The ending, however, suggests things are about to be launched off in a radically new direction, as well as casting a new light on the film we’ve just watched. These closing moments most literally remind me of The Matrix Reloaded: following a surprise world-changing development, our hero lies recuperating on a spaceship with new-found allies among the resistance, while outside in the rest of the world a final showdown brews…

Katniss' backTonally, however, it’s more similar to The Empire Strikes Back** — indeed, the Star Wars comparison applies to both Hunger Games films and their relationship to each other: the first is the story of an unwitting small-town kid becoming a hero and landing a decisive blow against the evil ruling body in a standalone adventure; but our heroes have only won the battle, not the war, and the evil empire rolls on… Cue Film #2, in which we get a wider view of the world, the bad guys seek our heroes more directly, and everything comes to a head in a blatant “to be continued” cliffhanger that unavoidably draws us on to the next instalment.

On The Dissolve, Tasha Robinson goes so far as to assert that, not only are they alike, but “Catching Fire’s ending is the most daring “to be continued” since Empire Strikes Back”. She argues that they are executed in a style which none of the multitudinous other cliffhanger-ending-ed films made since (including everything from Back to the Future to The Lord of the Rings) can claim to have achieved in quite the same way. To take her final sentences: “Most serial films end by spelling out exactly how the characters are headed into disaster, and in some cases, exactly what they plan to do about it. Empire and Catching Fire closes [sic] with a sense not just of something continuing, but potentially, even more thrillingly, of something new beginning.” Her whole piece is worth a read.

The Emperor, or somethingOf course, to an extent the tone of this ending comes from it being an adaptation: the filmmakers haven’t looked at the history of movie cliffhangers and chosen which to emulate, but instead brought someone else’s ending to the screen. Adapting doesn’t mean you have to take the original work faithfully, mind — you could go the Game of Thrones route and rearrange exactly where one book ends and the next begins; or the James Bond / Jason Bourne route of doing just whatever the hell you want. I haven’t read Suzanne Collins’ original novels, but I get the impression the films are pretty faithful.

Indeed, perhaps the real strength of Catching Fire being an adaptation of a novel is that it’s bedded in one author’s voice. My point being: it wasn’t written and constructed by committee, meaning we’re not subjected to the over-familiar beats of an action-adventure movie. There aren’t regularly-spaced action sequences of ever-increasing scale throughout, for instance — it’s not until halfway through that we end up in the arena, and up to that point it’s all story, the only action being ‘events’ rather than your traditional Action Sequence. This is no bad thing. If it’s adaptations of young adult novels that we need to save us from predictability, to deliver us a story rather than a thin excuse for the delivery of evenly-spaced action sequences, then so be it.

When the Games do arrive, director Francis Lawrence makes the most of it: as Katniss finally rises into the arena, the aspect ratio subtly shifts from filmic 2.40:1 to IMAX-derived 1.78:1. It’s remarkable how much impact this has even on a TV screen; nothing like what it must have in a proper IMAX theatre, but striking nonetheless — it really feels like things have just gotten bigger, both in terms of events depicted and the cinematography, Not Stormtroopers, nopewhich seems richer, more detailed, despite no genuine increase in resolution. I guess it’s true what they say: if you start with a higher quality source, it filters all the way down. The “bigger screen” effect probably wouldn’t work for a film entirely shot on IMAX — it’d just fill your TV from the start — but, after an hour-or-so of black bars, it really feels like the screen has grown.

Last year was one of mixed fortunes for the blockbuster, when films that one might deem well-received actually had an equal number of detractors; but Catching Fire stands apart as an engrossing, entertaining, intelligent and invigorating success. I guess it too must have its detractors, but I suspect not as many, and not as deservedly.

5 out of 5

The first Hunger Games is on Film4 tonight at 9pm. The next (and penultimate) instalment, Mockingjay: Part 1, is in UK cinemas from this Thursday, 20th November.


* I’ve still not seen any of the Twilight films, but I remain confident that, when I do, I’m not going to like them. ^

** I’m certainly not the first person to notice this: Googling “Catching Fire Empire Strikes Back comparison” brings up about 66,000 results — it used to be more, and obviously it misses anyone who’s making the comparison without using the world “comparison”. ^

After the Sunset (2004)

2008 #67
Brett Ratner | 93 mins | TV | 12 / PG-13

After the SunsetI’ve never had as much of a problem with Brett Ratner as some others. I quite enjoyed the first two Rush Hour films (though, admittedly, I was relatively young) and also liked Red Dragon (though, at the time, I hadn’t seen Silence of the Lambs), and would lay the blame for X-Men: The Last Stand at the feet of the producers who decided to save all the Wolverine backstory stuff for a spin-off, in the process disconnecting the threequel from the Wolverine-obsessed first two — what was left was pretty decent, if you ask me. After the Sunset, on the other hand, is like Woody Harrelson’s character: not much cop.

The story concerns a retired jewel thief goaded into performing one last job by the FBI officer who never caught him (that’s Harrelson’s character — you see, he’s not much of a cop! Geddit?) A decent enough premise, suggesting something Ocean’s Eleven-like; but someone didn’t think this was enough story — or, perhaps, couldn’t come up with a complex-enough security system for the jewel — and so tacked on a buddy comedy. It’s a pretty illogical one as well: the two men hate each other, so why would they spend so much time together? It feels like padding around the heist plot, but takes up more screen time. Other subplots, like Don Cheadle as the unspecified Caribbean island’s resident gangster, who wants the jewel to fund something or other, also don’t go anywhere.

Each of these plots seem to have originated in different films — some serious, some light, some thoroughly comedic. When stuck together they make for a constantly varying tone, and it’s difficult to work out which was the intended one. By the end there’s so much going on (though, barely) that the ending goes on forever, wrapping up its various near-unrelated threads in as drawn-out a manner as possible, apparently just to make the film hit a decent length. The final twist is almost good, but remains a bit underdeveloped and consequently isn’t clever enough to be worthwhile — it winds up as just another pointless extension.

Despite all this it does have its moments, thanks primarily to a skilled cast… not that I can remember any specific good bits now. It does at least mean that, if you can put the tonal and structural oddities to one side, it can be a moderately pleasant way to pass an hour and a half.

3 out of 5