War for the Planet of the Apes

For F*** Magazine

WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES 

Director : Matt Reeves
Cast : Andy Serkis, Woody Harrelson, Steve Zahn, Amiah Miller, Judy Greer, Terry Notary, Karin Konoval, Gabriel Chavarria
Genre : Action/Sci-Fi
Run Time : 2h 22min
Opens : 13 July 2017
Rating : PG (Some Violence)

           In the third entry of the Planet of the Apes reboot series, Caesar (Serkis) wages his most personal battle yet. It is two years after the events of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, and the ape population has been dwindling due to a protracted war with the humans. When Caesar’s wife Cornelia (Greer) and younger son Cornelius (Devyn Dalton) are kidnapped by humans, Caesar heads into enemy territory to rescue them. He finds himself face-to-face with Colonel McCullough (Harrelson), a nigh-psychotic soldier hell-bent on obliterating the apes for good. McCullough and his men are assisted by apes who were followers of Caesar’s late rival Koba, and who defected to the side of the humans for fear of reprisal from Caesar. Maurice (Konoval), Caesar’s advisor and confidant, adopts a young orphaned human girl named Nova (Miller). Maurice, Nova, Rocket (Notary) and “Bad Ape” (Zahn) scope out McCullough’s encampment, looking for a way to liberate the apes who have been captured and enslaved. As humanity and apes make what each perceive to be their last stand, Caesar is in danger of being consumed by vengeance and hatred, and going down the path Koba did.

The Apes reboot films have set a high bar for any reimagining to follow. Reboots are often viewed as hollow, money-grubbing exercise, but Rise of the Planet of the Apes more than made an excellent case for its existence. Then, Dawn topped that, and the third instalment in the trilogy upholds that standard. This is an intense experience – it’s a war film, and more specifically, a prisoner-of-war film. Director Matt Reeves and screenwriter Mark Bomback have listed Bridge on the River Kwai as an influence, and the film cuts through its fantastical elements to deliver a searing, haunting drama.

In 2011, 2014, and now in 2017, Apes movies were released shortly after Transformers movies, almost as if to function as antidotes. It’s good to have a reminder of just how good and how powerful a well-made blockbuster can be. There are several dialogue-free stretches of the film during which it’s carried just by glances and gestures. The political commentary and the darkness of the story are tempered with an abundance of spectacle, culminating in a climactic showdown complete with explosions of fire and ice.

Despite the sheer quality of the visual effects work even back then, the apes in Rise were still a little challenging to buy as fully-fledged characters. Granted, it was also early in their evolution. In Dawn, and even more so here, the apes are so much more than visual effects flourishes. The superlative work of Weta Digital, supervised by Joe Letteri, complemented by the performances of Serkis, Greer, Notary and the other performers, make the creatures utterly believable. It gets to the point where they stop registering as digital creations, and the audience can fully buy into their journeys and arcs, as individuals and as a shrewdness. Each ape projects a sense of humanity, and having followed Caesar this far, it does sting to see him weary and haggard, wondering if his continuous struggles have been worth it. We get a tiny bit of comic relief in the form of Zahn’s kooky Bad Ape, but this doesn’t undercut the overall seriousness of the film.

While the presence of Miller’s Nova does seem derivative of any number of “a kid and their X” stories, the bond that she develops with Maurice is convincingly fleshed out, and the film refrains from using Nova as an emotionally manipulative plot device. The apes’ willingness to accept a human child into the fold also indicates that a war with humans isn’t their first course of action.

As the human antagonist, Harrelson is utterly terrifying – it’s probably the scariest he’s been since Natural Born Killers. Harrelson has become known for playing eccentric, rough-around-the-edges but ultimately likeable characters. In War, his performance echoes the characters of Vietnam War movies like Full Metal Jacket and Apocalypse Now. This is a film that doesn’t so much turn on battles as it does on confrontations. The central confrontation between McCullough and Caesar is a riveting nail-biter of a scene, impeccably staged and acted. McCullough is a larger-than-life character, but there’s no goofiness to him. Adding to the air of uneasiness around the character is the cult-like nature of his faction, and how he depicts himself as something of a prophet.

Many action movie soundtracks tend to sound indistinct, but Michael Giacchino’s score for this film packs plenty of personality. Giacchino employs a variety of textures, including an emphasis on pitched percussion instruments like the marimba, eliciting a wide range of emotions. Some directors mandate that the score be “invisible”, and we’re glad that Giacchino’s work for this film is as visible and as audible as it is.

War for the Planet of the Apes does demand effort from the viewer, as it takes a while to build up to the dazzling finale. Thankfully, the characters, ape and human alike, are easy to get invested in. Reeves proves himself to be a director at the top of his game, wringing drama and genuine emotion from a premise which can, and has, been handled clumsily before. While the door is left open for a sequel, War ends on such a satisfying note that it doesn’t feel like the producers are begging for another instalment. War is a stirring battle cry that caps off a consistently impressive trilogy.

Summary: A sombre yet stirring and stunningly-realised adventure, War for the Planet of the Apes engages the viewer on a human level and showcases everything a masterfully-made blockbuster can be.

RATING: 4.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

The Good Dinosaur

For F*** Magazine

THE GOOD DINOSAUR

Director : Peter Sohn
Cast : (The voices of) Raymond Ochoa, Jack Bright, Sam Elliott, Anna Paquin, A. J. Buckley, Steve Zahn, Jeffrey Wright, Frances McDormand
Genre : Animation
Run Time : 101 mins
Opens : 26 November 2015
Rating : PG

Pixar transports us back to an era when dinosaurs ruled the earth. Oh, and there are humans there too, no big deal. In an alternate version of prehistory, the asteroid missed the earth and the K-T Extinction that wiped out the dinosaurs never happened. Arlo (Ochoa) is the youngest in a family of Apatosaurus, living with his siblings Buck (Marcus Scribner) and Libby (Maleah Padilla) and their parents Poppa Henry (Wright) and Momma Ida (McDormand) on a farm. Arlo lacks self-confidence and while attempting to face his fears, he gets swept away by a strong river current, separating him from his family. A young caveboy named Spot (Bright) has been stealing corn from Poppa Henry’s silo, and while Arlo starts off viewing him as a nuisance, he gradually comes to befriend and care for Spot as they traverse the wilderness together. Among the characters they meet on their travels is a family of Tyrannosaurus, comprising Butch (Elliott) and his children Ramsey (Paquin) and Nash (Buckley). Arlo and Spot must survive the elements and hostile critters to make their way home safe and sound.

            The Good Dinosaur is the second Pixar film this year after Inside Out, making 2015 the first year in the studio’s history in which they’ve released two feature films. The Good Dinosaur is a straight-forward, kid-friendly adventure film packed with breath-taking, realistically rendered environments and several cute character moments. However, we’ve come to expect more from this studio and the film lacks the wisdom and nuance that characterises some of Pixar’s best work. The film was originally intended to be released in 2014, and issues with the third act led to an overhaul, with Peter Sohn replacing Bob Peterson as director. The end result is largely safe, the coming of age story well-trodden territory for family films. There are story beats that seem lifted wholesale from The Lion King and there are no surprises as the narrative progresses.

            The film is a take on the ‘boy and his x’ trope, except in this case the boy is a young Apatosaurus and the ‘x’ is a feral caveboy. Tales of cross-species friendship have long been fixtures of cinema and the example that leaps to mind in recent animation is How to Train Your Dragon. The bond between Arlo and Spot does possess a certain sweetness about it, but it doesn’t tug on the heartstrings as strongly as the connection between Hiccup and Toothless did. The generally high standard set by Pixar is its own undoing here. The environmental effects are expertly executed and the film has its share of colourful, eye-catching visuals, but the character design comes off as a little unsophisticated, like something that one would see in a typical children’s picture book. There is no shortage of neat physical humour, but the emotional through-line is undercut by the film’s episodic road trip nature.

            Child actor Ochoa does capture the vulnerability of Arlo, but there is little to the character that adds to the stock underdog protagonist seen in many an animated movie. He’s picked on by his siblings and feels a need to prove himself, thrust into a journey in which he must discover “the strength that lies within” and all that. Bright must have had a ball of a time growling and yelping into the microphone as Spot, and there is a dynamism to the size contrast between the two lead characters. Wright’s kindly authority figure is reminiscent of a gentler Mufasa from the afore-mentioned The Lion King. The casting of Elliott, known for his roles in Westerns, as a cattle baron-type does feel more like a Dreamworks move than a Pixar one, but it’s still an amusing performance. The way the T. rexes are animated galloping comes off as jarring; it’s meant to evoke cowboys but it doesn’t quite work. The incidental characters include a pack of Velociraptor Rustlers that are, for all intents and purposes, the trio of hyenas from The Lion King.

            The Good Dinosaur is touching and funny on occasion, but the maturity beneath the surface and the profundity displayed in the likes of WALL-E and The Incredibles is mostly absent. This will sound harsh, but especially in comparison with Inside Out, The Good Dinosaur feels like it was assembled by Pixar’s B-team. The wide open American Northwest landscapes are rendered with technical polish, and enhanced by Mychael and Jeff Danna’s Appalachian-tinged score, but the plot is formulaic to a fault. The predictability of the story is rescued by flashes of heartfelt sweetness, but The Good Dinosaur is ultimately an average animated film from a studio known for delivering masterpieces far above the average.



Summary: There’s nothing fatally wrong with The Good Dinosaur, but we’ve come to expect far greater things from Pixar than this pleasant but formulaic effort.

RATING: 3 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong