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

Kong: Skull Island

For F*** Magazine

KONG: SKULL ISLAND 

Director : Jordan Vogt-Roberts
Cast : Tom Hiddleston, Samuel L. Jackson, John Goodman, Brie Larson, John C. Reilly, Toby Kebbell, Corey Hawkins, Jing Tian, John Ortiz, Jason Mitchell, Shea Wigham, Terry Notary
Genre : Action/Adventure/Fantasy
Run Time : 1h 58min
Opens : 9 March 2017
Rating : PG13 (Some Violence and Coarse Language)

12 years after Peter Jackson’s King Kong, the classic movie monster lumbers back onto the big screen. It is 1973, and Bill Randa (Goodman), a senior official of the secret government organisation Monarch, is in search of monsters. He plans an expedition to an uncharted land mass nicknamed as ‘Skull Island’. Randa hires James Conrad (Hiddleston), a former SAS Captain who served in the Vietnam War, as a hunter-tracker. U.S. Army Lt. Col. Preston Packard (Jackson) is a helicopter squadron leader, and is brought on to escort the expedition. The team also comprises war photojournalist Mason Weaver (Larson), geologist Houston Brooks (Hawkins), biologist San Lin (Jing), Landsat official Victor Nieves (Ortiz) and Maj. Jack Chapman (Kebbell), Packard’s right-hand man. When explosives are detonated as part of the survey, an enormous ape called Kong (Notary/Kebbell) is provoked. The survivors of Kong’s initial attack come across Hank Marlow (Reilly), a pilot who has been stranded on Skull Island since World War II. The expedition soon learns that Kong is far from the only beast to call the island home, embarking on a survival odyssey.

Kong: Skull Island exists in the ‘MonsterVerse’, a planned cinematic universe which includes 2014’s Godzilla. This is a B-movie with A-list stars and a big budget, mostly living up to the potential to be a thrilling adventure yarn and a throwback to the creature features of yore. This is the first large-scale tentpole blockbuster for director Jordan Vogt-Roberts, who directed Kings of Summer and Nick Offerman: American Ham. He acquits himself well, delivering top grade escapism. Taking place in the waning days of the Vietnam War, the film makes great use of its period setting, taking inspiration from works like Apocalypse Now. There’s a healthy amount of humour and while Kong: Skull Island doesn’t take itself too seriously, it’s a nail-biter when it needs to be. This is the kind of film that would be enhanced by the audience reacting, with jump scares and unexpected deaths sure to elicit gasps and shrieks.

Kong: Skull Island is not a strikingly original work – fantasy artist Joe DeVito, who co-wrote and illustrated the book King Kong of Skull Island, sued Warner Bros. and Legendary Pictures for allegedly stealing his ideas, having had a pitch meeting with the studios. While there are familiar elements to Kong: Skull Island, there’s still plenty of imagination at work. The native Iwi people have distinctive tattoos and markings, and the creature designs are effective and awe-inspiring. In designing the Skullcrawlers, Kong’s Reptilian nemeses, Vogt-Roberts drew on the pit lizard from the 1933 King Kong film, Sachiel from Evangelion, No-Face from Spirited Away and Cubone from Pokémon.

The titular creature is performed via motion capture by Terry Notary and Toby Kebbell from the Planet of the Apes reboot films, and great effort is taken to establish the sheer enormousness of this reimagined Kong, scaled larger so he can one day take on Godzilla. Larry Fong’s cinematography captures the blend of natural beauty and extraordinary danger contained within Skull Island, with location filming in northern Vietnam, Hawaii and Australia’s Gold Coast selling the island as an actual, tangible place.

For all his charms, Hiddleston doesn’t exactly fit the archetype of a rugged, square-jawed action hero. Looking for all the world like he’s cosplaying Nathan Drake from the Uncharted video games, he does seem a little out of his element but is trying his best to sell it. The character’s name, “Conrad”, is a reference to Joseph Conrad, the novelist best known for Heart of Darkness. By the time he dons a gas mask to slash at flying Pterodactylus creatures with a katana amidst a swirl of noxious fumes, we were sold.

Jackson is playing the badass as usual, but there are layers to the Preston Packard character that make him stand out from the typical Samuel L. Jackson role. He’s disillusioned as the Vietnam War ends, and hunting down Kong to avenge his men gives him new purpose. It’s the ‘great white hunter’ archetype, and Jackson has compared his character to Captain Ahab from Moby-Dick.

Goodman is an ever-dependable presence, with Reilly providing comic relief and surprising pathos as a castaway who has spent nearly three decades stuck on Skull Island. Larson’s anti-war photographer helps to mitigate all that testosterone to a degree. While Kong doesn’t get a doomed romance like in almost every earlier incarnation, it’s referenced by having him share a moment or two with Mason.

Most of the supporting characters exist purely to be picked off one by one by the island’s denizens. Jing Tian sticks out, her casting an obvious bid to pander to Mainland Chinese audiences – which is something we’re only going to be seeing more of. After all, Legendary Pictures is now owned by China’s Dalian Wanda group.

Kong: Skull Island kicks off with an intriguing prologue, hits a bit of a lull when all the characters are being established and the mission is being set up, then hits its stride once the expedition arrives on the island. With beautiful scenery, solid visual effects spectacle and thrilling set-pieces in which various characters meet their untimely and inventive ends, Kong: Skull Island makes us wish big-budget monster movies were a little more common. Stick around for a post-credit scene which teases the future of the MonsterVerse.

Summary: Kong: Skull Island is a monster movie that doesn’t skimp on the monsters, a rousing adventure bolstered by its period setting and stellar cast.

RATING: 4 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Warcraft: The Beginning

For F*** Magazine

WARCRAFT: THE BEGINNING

Director : Duncan Jones
Cast : Travis Fimmel, Paula Patton, Ben Foster, Dominic Cooper, Toby Kebbell, Ben Schnetzer, Robert Kazinsky, Ruth Negga, Daniel Wu, Anna Galvin, Clancy Brown, Terry Notary
Genre : Adventure/Fantasy
Run Time : 2 hrs 3 mins
Opens : 9 June 2016
Rating : PG13 (Some Violence)

Blizzard’s fantasy franchise comprising video games and novels finally makes its leap to the big screen. Sir Anduin Lothar (Fimmel), the military commander of the Stormwind Kingdom in Azeroth, faces an unprecedented threat: Gul’dan (Wu), a powerful orc warlock, is leading the orc hordes from their dying homeworld of Draenor into Azeroth. Garona (Patton), a half-orc, half-human woman enslaved by Gul’dan, must decide where her loyalties lie. The noble orc chieftain Durotan (Kebbell), whose mate Draka (Galvin) is pregnant with their first child, does not see the merit in Gul’dan’s attack. At the behest of Stormwind’s King Llane Wrynn (Cooper), Lothar must defend Azeroth from the invaders. Together with young mage Khadgar (Schnetzer), Lothar seeks out the reclusive sorcerer Medivh (Foster), the Guardian of Tirisfal. They must repel Gul’dan’s evil magic, known as the Fel, as the seeds of an ages-long conflict are sown.
            Director Duncan Jones, who co-wrote the screenplay with Charles Leavitt, weathered an arduous production process and is himself an ardent fan of the Warcraft franchise. The disparity in the reaction the film has received from critics and fans indicates that this does appeal to those already familiar with the source material and who are excited to see the characters and locations come to life in cinematic form, but that those coming in cold will likely be alienated. This is very much a generic high fantasy tale, and there are so many characters introduced from the get-go that it’s easy to get them mixed up. The straight-face earnestness in the approach is a double-edged sword: on one hand, the filmmakers demonstrate a belief in the world they are building, but on the other, there’s an impenetrable rigidity to it all. Jones ploughs dutifully through the plot, but audiences aren’t given a chance to acclimatise to the world and the characters; the story itself is simple in nature but convoluted in execution.
            Visually, this is an achievement, if not as earth-shattering as some might have hoped. The visual effects work, handled by Industrial Light and Magic and other houses like Hybride and Rodeo FX, is superb throughout. Visual effects supervisor Bill Westenhofer was an Oscar winner for Life of Pi, and one can tell that great care has been put into realising the digitally-created characters and environments. The props were crafted by Weta Workshop, and everything from the suits of armour to the swords to King Llane’s helmet abounds with pleasing detail. It’s a shame then that while perfectly acceptable, none of the designs really set Warcraftapart from its high-fantasy ilk.
            After boarding the project, Jones set about re-writing the script so that it wasn’t built around the hoary trope of “all the humans are good guys and all the monsters are bad guys”. Fimmel, best known as Ragnar Lothbrok on the TV series Vikings, is a serviceable heroic military commander. Lothar’s relationship with his son Callan (Burkely Duffield) is a key component of the character’s arc, but because it has to make room for everything else, that is severely underdeveloped. Patton exudes confidence and retains a degree of elegance while playing a feral half-breed; Garona ended up being the character this reviewer gravitated to the most. Foster lacks the other-worldly mystique that Medivh should have, while Schnetzer is a fine sidekick to Fimmel.
            In addition to playing the orc chieftain Grommash Hellscream, Terry Notary was also the movement coach for the actors playing the orcs. Notary’s credits include Avatar and Rise and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. The orcs are brutish by nature, and the gentleness with which Durotan holds his new-born son does lend the character more shades beyond that of a fierce warrior. Cooper looks the part of a dashing young king and Negga is plenty regal as Llane’s Queen-consort Lady Taria. Gul’dan is as one-dimensional as villains get: he’s little more than the snarling, hunchbacked wizard with an unquenchable thirst for power. We would offer Wu some praise, but it is hard to find him (or most of the other actors playing orcs, for that matter) in the character, since his voice has been treated in post-production and there’s no resemblance whatsoever. This reviewer feels Wu should be a much bigger star in Hollywood, so it was a bit of a disappointment knowing he’s in this movie but is hardly noticeable.
            Warcraft is not a total wash, but given the build-up and the massive following the franchise has, it’s a shame that the film carries with it the vibe of going through the motions. Jones is obviously passionate about the property and has filmmaking talent to spare, but the cluttered narrative holds neophytes at bay. It’s hard to shake the feeling that one has been dropped in the deep end of the Warcraft lore pool, when this is meant to be an origin story that builds the world from the ground up. It’s more frustrating than genuinely aggravating that Warcraft stumbles so many times in its would-be epic journey.
Summary:For long-time fans of the franchise, this might be a dream come true, but it will be challenging for newbies to make head or tail of the overstuffed story, or differentiate a number of the characters.
RATING: 3 out of 5 Stars
Jedd Jong

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

For F*** Magazine

DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES

Director : Matt Reeves
Cast : Andy Serkis, Jason Clarke, Gary Oldman, Keri Russell, Toby Kebbell, Judy Greer, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Kirk Acevedo, Nick Thurston, Terry Notary
Genre : Sci-Fi, Action
Opens : 10 July 2014
Rating : TBA 
Running time: 132 mins
Three years on from the release of Rise of the Planet of the Apes, this reviewer is still impressed with how effective, intelligent, innovative and just plain good that reboot was. In this sequel, set ten years after the events of Rise, earth’s human population has dwindled at an alarming rate in the wake of a devastating “Simian flu” pandemic. Caesar the chimpanzee (Serkis) leads a flourishing shrewdness of apes, including his son Blue Eyes (Thurston) and his aggressive advisor Koba (Kebbell). The human remnant sequestered in what remains of San Francisco is headed by military man Dreyfus (Oldman). Malcolm (Clarke), one of the survivors in Dreyfus’ camp, forges a fragile alliance with Caesar in order to gain access to a hydroelectric dam to generate power for the human settlement. Caesar grows to accept Malcolm, his wife Ellie (Russell) and their son Alexander (Smit-McPhee). However, having been severely mistreated by humans while in captivity, Koba strongly disapproves of this arrangement and incites an explosive conflict between the apes and the humans.

            Dawn of the Planet of the Apes sees Matt Reeves of Cloverfield fame taking over the director’s chair from Rupert Wyatt, working from a screenplay by Rise scribes Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver, with Mark Bomback. This is everything a good sequel should be, furthering the plot in a logical and intriguing direction without slavishly re-treading the story beats of its predecessor and without trying to be superficially “bigger and better” in terms of bombastic spectacle. Equal storytelling attention is given to the apes and the humans and the audience is fully able to buy into this world and accept each player in this story, be they human or computer-generated ape, as legitimate, well-formed characters. There’s a whole lot of meaningful character development going on and admirably enough, much of the conflict is derived from the characters’ individual nature instead of contrived circumstances. Despite the ten year time skip, there is still very strong connective tissue linking Dawnto Rise, building on the emotions generated from Caesar’s early years as depicted in the previous film.  

            Of course, credit has to be given to visual effects supervisor Joe Letteri of Weta Digital. The many artists and technicians involved give vivid life to the performance capture work of actors like Andy Serkis and Toby Kebbell, applying their expressions and physicality to intricately-crafted CGI apes. The interaction between the apes amongst themselves, the apes and the environment and the apes and the live-action human actors is seamless. As impressive as the animation in Rise of the Planet of the Apes was, it is stepped up here, to the point that the film’s opening shot is a tight close-up of Caesar’s eyes – those eyes lifelike and actually acting. Serkis, Kebbell, Thurston and the other actors portraying the key apes all deserve praise for essaying these figures with such nuanced physicality, but the visual effects wizards carrying that baton to the finish line should be duly recognised as well. In Dawn, great acting and great effects go hand-in-paw to create not just creatures, but honest-to-goodness characters.

            The human cast is our way in, and Jason Clarke, Keri Russell and Kodi Smit-McPhee are all convincing as the members of the family central to the story. The terseness between Malcolm and Caesar that eventually gives way to mutual respect and understanding but is always threatened by both apes and humans is played exceedingly well by both Clarke and Serkis. Gary Oldman’s role is not as big as the promotional material would have you believe, but he brings a heart-wrenching humanity to Dreyfus in addition to his signature explosive scenery-chewing (delivered in just the right amounts).

            1968’s Planet of the Apes was a landmark achievement for being an entertaining film that also pushed the boundaries of filmmaking technique (particularly in terms of special effects makeup) and was very thought-provoking. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is commendably similar in all those regards. There’s always been a silliness inherent in the premise, but following Rise, Dawn continues to effectively mitigate that. The film is unflinchingly brutal, even disturbing when it has to be but also articulates genuine emotion. It can be construed as anti-gun, interesting considering that the star of the original Planet of the Apes, the late Charlton Heston, was the president of the National Rifle Association. However, that is not where the focus lies – Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, like Risebefore it, is a true character piece. Many summer blockbusters are touted as “character pieces” and that fools no one, but here is a film that intelligently and compellingly comments on prejudice and war while delivering the action flick goods and visual effects spectacle. A fine antidote to Transformers: Age of Extinction.

Summary: A new day is dawning, as the revitalised Planet of the Apes franchise marches onwards in just the right direction.
RATING: 4.5 out of 5 Stars
Jedd Jong