War for the Planet of the Apes

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Some may have forgotten already but this iteration of “Planet of the Apes” is the second major studio reboot for the franchise.  Forgotten of course referencing the 2001 reboot starring Mark Walberg and directed by Tim Burton.  The newest reboot of the franchise began in 2011 and has been popular among moviegoing audiences and critics alike.  Andy Serkis has shone in the motion capture lead role as the Caesar, a genetically altered ape who is leading a revolution of apes on an earth whose human population has been decimated by a virus.  Much of the success of these films have to do with making an effort to understand the apes themselves and how/why they are motivated to build their own society apart from humans.  This is done meticulously, first by showing how Caesar’s understanding of humans is complicated in “Rise of the Planet of the Apes”.  Then it is further deepened in “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” by displaying the importance of building a peaceful society apart from the humans.  Humans, who seem to be intent on survival at any cost, which could result in the death of many apes and/or the demise of their own fragile remaining society.  These films are built on ideas about the cost of survival versus functional society and how that plays out when those ideas are in opposition.  These films have been consistent in their storytelling which explains why they continue to do well.

A few words about War for the Planet of the Apes:

  1. Slow – The movie opens with a battle scene that is pretty intense viewing.  However, after the initial skirmishes, much of the first hour of the film plods along a little more deliberately than I would have hoped.  While the excellent acting of Andy Serkis shines through the CGI rendering of Caesar, the choice to make the movie more deliberate to me does so at the cost of what I believe the movie was selling. If indeed the movie intended to sell the final showdown for the fate of the earth’s superior inhabitants.  On some level the movie accomplished this showdown, however, a large portion of the movie is spent studying the in depth emotion that is conveyed through Caesar’s face.  This makes much of the beginning of the film a bit of an emotional odyssey.
  2. Emotional to a fault – Speaking of emotional, this film ratchets up the stakes in that regard.  At times I was left feeling a little emotionally raw as at one point it seemed as if the Apes and particularly Caesar were never going to catch a break.  I also believe that walking into this movie believing that I would be watching a chess match showdown between human and ape placed me in the wrong frame of mind for the deeply emotional journey I received.  There are many quiet moments, many deep exchanges, long glances, etc that take the place of actual dialogue, which would work well to establish this journey.  However, for a movie that seemed to tout war being at its core, it would seem that war (while being set against a backdrop of a type of war) was more metaphor than actuality.  It would seem this was more of an emotional war than a physical one.
  3. Bad use of woody harrelson – Woody Harrelson depicts “The Colonel” who is in the film as the primary antagonist to the Apes as well as the key to answering some of the audience’s questions about halfway through the film.  Since the film unfolds as a mystery in the beginning by the time we get a full glimpse of Woody Harrelson he is there to fill all the gaps in the story for us, and to provide an obstacle before the Apes can get to their ultimate goal.  To me, this seemed like it could have been executed more effectively, as Woody Harrelson has the capability and range to have provided more nuance in this role.
  4. No character development for the humans – While all of “The Colonel”‘s backstory is revealed in one monologue, none of the other humans are given this courtesy.  This makes for very one-dimensional villains.  While on some level you may be able to sympathize with “the colonel” given his story, it was very hard for me to understand his followers and why they would engage in such cruelty that didn’t seem to be based on the desperation of survival as they were intending.  The idea that the humans are in a situation where they have no choice but to fight the apes is understandable, however without getting a full idea of the world that the humans themselves live in, it was hard for me to feel anything besides irrational hatred for them.
  5. Ceases world building – Much of this movie (and the series) is spent with the Apes and their view of the world.  This tight view of what is supposed to be a worldwide conflict makes the “planet” advertising to me a bit of a red herring.  Perhaps the idea of an ape “planet” was meant to just be a nod to the original films, however, all of the three movies are entrenched in one particular area of the planet.  This makes the whole idea of a worldwide plague seem a little more far fetched than I believe the creators of the series intended.  If we’re spending all of the time with the Apes and learning about the world only from them and one or two other human encampments, it makes it difficult to zoom out in my mind what survival on this “planet of apes” looks like.

I believe my last point is really why I ultimately didn’t like this movie much to the contrary of most movie goers.  I expected to see a world built out that that shows how the apes went from a forest in CA to across the planet and didn’t quite get that in this film.  This isn’t to say that you shouldn’t go see this movie as I believe it does bring to an emotional conclusion this specific tale of one ape’s view of the world from Rise to War. This makes the film gratifying in that respect I suppose.  However, do not make the mistake of thinking you are going to see apes wage all out war against humans.  Bring your kids, it’s safe for most.  2.99 of 5 stars.

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Spiderman: Homecoming

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The most recent iteration of Spiderman will be the 7th to feature the web-slinging superhero since 2002.  This will be the third reboot of the franchise (not counting the soft backdoor reboot that introduced Spidey to the MCU in Captain America Civil War) as well as the third actor to portray Spiderman in 7 films.  Historically these films have done well in the theaters and are generally appreciated by critics and fans alike with the exception of “Spiderman 3” and “The Amazing Spider-Man 2”, however, 2 bad outings of 7 (ish) films is still pretty good.  Spiderman:  Homecoming doesn’t intend to regurgitate the origin story of Spiderman, however, with a new lead, a new villain, and an entirely new universe to play in, this film will provide a fresh take on the popular superhero.

A few words about Spiderman:  Homecoming:

  1. Great product of Marvel Cinematic Universe – While still considered to be a property of SONY, Marvel Studios had a major role in the production of this film.  The deal they made with SONY allowed the events of Civil War to bleed into this universe and it worked well for the film.  Essentially this is the introduction of a brand new superhero (to the MCU) who, while movie going audiences may be familiar with, has a bit of his own universe to rebuild and in some cases rebrand.  Much like Ant-Man, this film does a good job of telling a smaller story within the Marvel Cinematic Universe while also alluding to larger events on the horizon.  There were moments in this film that felt more realistic because it was seen as a larger part of the MCU. For instance, by adding Robert Downey as a part of the cast, Spiderman immediately feels like a legitimate superhero connected to Iron Man who would have an interest in the villains that Spiderman was dealing with.  This bodes well for the future of the MCU because it means that beyond the Avengers the MCU can hope to expand to rest on the shoulders of all of its potential superheroes.
  2. Perfect lack of exposition – This film makes subtle changes to what we know about Spiderman without spending a ton of time on the details.  Walking into to this film we’re assumed to know, that Peter Parker has been bitten by a radioactive spider, that his uncle is dead, and that he is already for the most part aware of his superhero potential.  This works well because unlike some reboots we’re not expected to spend more time knowing or seeing details that aren’t necessarily important to this specific story.  For the most part, those details didn’t add or take from this story anyway.  Since there is no need to dwell on any of that pesky (albeit necessary) exposition, we’re able to spend more time developing little points like that Peter Parker is extremely intelligent.  We’re able to see him develop his web formula, develop relationships with his high school classmates, and most importantly spend some screen time developing a solid villain.
  3. Great Villian – Some of this will be noted from the first two points but because of the MCU and the lack of exposition, we’re able to spend some time developing a credible properly motivated villain.  The Vulture is born out of the logistical disaster that would be the cleanup after the battle of New York from the first Avengers film.  It was nice to see a villain that was not out of his mind, or some sort of mutant but rather a man while trying to provide for his family becomes a bit misguided using the arsenal of alien equipment which has literally fallen from the sky.  I can’t understate how well the fact that the Vulture, is a salvage contractor plays into the movie.  Later on, in the movie, Michael Keaton’s acting skills are put on display after a bit of a reveal and he and Tom Holland share a very tense moment that could be seen among the highest bits of tension I have seen in a Marvel film.  Great casting, great writing, great execution on this villain.
  4. Perfect tone – It was very enjoyable to see this film commit to allowing Spiderman to be a hapless teenager.  The casting of Tom Holland very much doubles down on this as he does a great job of acting like a young person both in his portrayal of the ambitious superhero and his total lack of full control (and reverence) of his powers.  This, of course, lends itself to many of the normal tropes we’ve seen in countless teen movies, however, this works well for the movie.  Taking a lighthearted tone allows for great juxtaposition when Spiderman is thrust into a serious situation.  It allows us to believe that perhaps he is not quite ready for this responsibility rather than just being capable because he has the powers.  This along with multiple sources of comic relief including from Peter Parker himself allows us as viewers to truly relate to Spiderman maybe even a little more than many of the other Marvel Superheroes.  I think that again, Ant-Man is a good comparison as it leans heavily on the idea of the regular guy thrust into greatness.  This is a good idea for audiences to connect with and it worked well for Spiderman.
  5. Casually diverse – The casting for this film was extremely diverse and done so effortlessly.  Typically before these films are released much ado is made about the casting, mostly with people wondering whether or not the right choices were made.  For this film, I don’t believe I saw one bad choice.  The principal of the high school was Asian, the PE teacher was black, the science teacher was Latina.  There is an interracial family that plays a key role in the plot.  There are multiple black men that play featured roles in the film both villain and antihero, showing complexity in their abilities.  In general, this film is very kind to people of color and allows for race to be a reflection of our current world without straining to do so.  I noticed this because I pay attention to these types of casting choices, however, I think the larger point is that the vast majority of audiences will not care.
  6. Excellent Action Sequences – The action in this film is top notch.  From the actual web swinging and slinging, to the battle sequences between Spiderman and the Vulture, to the cameos from Iron Man, this film packs a punch.  Again, the hapless teenager aspect allows for Peter Parker to underestimate some of his scenarios he swings into, however, this works well in allowing for the action to ebb and flow based on his experience and learning curve.  For audiences that only want to see action, they won’t be disappointed watching this movie.
Overall I think this movie can be filed under “Marvel does it again”.  Upholding the tried and true standard of sticking to emotional truths of characters and story while actually making an engaging and exciting movie.  It was funny, lighthearted, action-packed great movie for summer, but also will be easily consumed multiple times for those audience members requiring a second viewing.  Being that this is the 7th attempt at Spiderman it’s hard to see giving this movie the top score however it’s pretty close.  Bring your kids!  4 of 5 stars.

Alien Covenant

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Alien Covenant is the second film in the prequel Alien series and the 6th film considered to be a part of the original canon of Alien films.  (This is a direct reference to the now defunct Alien vs Predator series which licenses the use of the Xenomorphs from the original films, I should also state that Aliens have also been in comic books and various other media ventures so the property itself has been very profitable.)  The continuation of the series picks up after the events of Prometheus which saw the film return to its original suspense/mystery roots.  This shift allowed for new questions to be asked and answered of the original series as well as make use of modern advances in film technology to build the world to be visually stunning.  Prometheus did well at the box office setting up director Ridley Scott nicely for his plan to make multiple prequels and sequels.  Alien Covenant picks up about 10 or 11 years after the events of Prometheus and follows the attempted colonization of the planet Origae-6.  This film seeks to add further depth to the Alien Universe and continue telling the origin story of the Xenomorphs and their creators the “Engineers”.

A few words about Alien:  Covenant:

  1. Characters are flat – There is not much character development at all in this installment of Alien.  While the characters have an assumed backstory, exposition that is explicitly stated in the movie does little to provide depth to the characters themselves.  It does not help that in many cases the characters are making stock horror movie decisions, such as always choosing to split up rather than work together.  At one point in the movie, the idea of them continuously splitting up becomes a little comical as one character will be found dead, and the remaining characters still assign separate tasks for each other to complete.  The setups for Alien carnage comes off a little convenient.
  2. Not many Xenomorphs – In this movie while the Xenomorphs (traditional Alien creatures from these films) are prominently displayed, at times their presence did not feel necessary.  The central conflict involved them, however, they were not the central villain.  This made seeing them feel a little empty or one note.  In many cases, it seemed as if they only showed up to ratchet up the immediate tension rather than because they were a necessity to the story.
  3. Two much fassbender – It is not a spoiler to say that Michael Fassbender plays two roles in this movie.  While his acting is solid and interesting to watch, at one point he’s doing scenes with both characters together.  These scenes were at least a little bit overwrought.  I found myself wondering what the ultimate purpose of these scenes were and don’t ever know that it was revealed.  Seeing him “mentor” himself came off hokier than I believe it was intended to be.
  4. Not much real story development – Prometheus introduces the characters of the “engineer” or the beings that humans suspect created them.  In Alien Covenant, the engineers have a brief moment but their story is not really expanded upon.  The questions raised about them in Prometheus seemed to be discarded in order to create a different movie.
  5. Visually Appealing – Much like Prometheus the use of wide shots in this movie did much to establish the contrast between the small humans exploring the vast universe.  Many of the shots are breathtaking on the big screen, which in this format does a great job of making the viewer feel small as well.

Overall, this movie did very many traditional “Alien” things.  There are Xenomorphs, space tension, action, air locks, acid blood, running, screaming and dying.  However, this film eventually ends up just being another installment of Xenomorphs killing humans.  While the reasoning for the existence of Xenomorphs is a little clearer, the film ultimate does little to expand the mythology of the Alien universe.  I would still love to see a movie that does more to expand this backstory, much like Prometheus began to do.  This is a solid summer movie, but ultimately I left the theater feeling like something was missing.  Do not bring your kids.  2.5 of 5 stars.

 

Guardians of the Galaxy Volume 2

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Guardians of the Galaxy Volume 2 is the 15th film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) and the third film in the third phase of the same.  The first installment of Guardians takes the viewers on a journey far beyond earth and sets the larger stage for what is to come in the MCU.  Before the first film debuted there was much doubt to the success of the movie due to its use of lesser known characters in the MCU.  However, the hilarious use of witty banter among the protagonists and the well-executed trope of the “ragtag group of misfits” somehow thrown into extraordinary circumstances with extraordinary expectations played well for audiences worldwide.  The first Guardians film set the bar high for future installments and created much anticipation for the second film.

A few words about Guardians of the Galaxy Volume 2:

  1. Tries too hard to be funny at times – Right out of the gate Guardians 2 seemed intent on doubling down on the humor that endears itself to the audience in the first installment.  However in this installment, while funny on its own, there was a noticeable shift in a number of jokes per scene.  While the first installment felt very natural with jokes flowing at the pace of the film, Guardians 2 seemed at times to stop the action or story to tell jokes that at many times felt as if they went on a bit too long.
  2. Lots of character development – In this movie each of the Guardians gets a deeper look into why they are the person (or tree, or raccoon, or other species) that they are.  For the most part, this was done pretty well with explaining the motivations behind each of the characters.  However, this made the movie;
  3. Extremely emotional – There were times in this film where it felt as if the audience was being forced into an emotional cheese grater.  There were several instances in which again the film felt like it stopped to make a very specific emotional point about one of the characters.  This was at the very least a bit heavy handed and at most emotionally manipulative.
  4. Fun and engaging action – The action sequences were very well executed.  Specifically, there is one involving Rocket that was very entertaining to watch and another involving Yondu (Michael Rooker with a functional mohawk) that was mesmerizing as well.  The larger action set pieces were also done very well, watching this film in 3D was very rewarding as the editing made full use of the medium.  (this coming from a critic who despises 3D and feels its use is mostly gimmicky)
  5. Felt very disconnected from the MCU – There is a total of five end credit and mid-credits scenes and only two of them did any work to tie this film to the larger Marvel Cinematic Universe.  Other than those scenes this film felt almost entirely self-contained and outside of the MCU.  There are still about four films between this one and Avengers:  Infinity War and while we know who the main villain of that film will be (Thanos) it still remains to be seen how the Guardians will mesh with the heroes of the other films.  This didn’t hurt the film itself however it did make this seem a little more like a lot of side plot rather than an important part of the main story.  (also there is a point in the film where the main villain is destroying earth and it seemed at the bare minimum a little odd that there would be no Avengers interested in helping to stop this)
  6. Terrible main plot reveal – When the main villain reveals their ultimate plot to destroy much of the galaxy it is done in kind of a crass way.  Revealing any more than that would be a spoiler but suffice it to say it felt at the very least a bit “Maury” -esque.  (I welcome anyone who wants to unpack this further to contact me on twitter or fb)

Overall the film was not bad.  I would say another solid entry in the MCU (whilst not necessary being a strongly connected unit of the MCU) with great action sequences and still remained funny (at times to a fault)  The audience loved Baby Groot (albeit it seemed there was more of him than was needed) and there is much visually to enjoy while watching this film.  You can bring your kids, but it is a bit long as I sat next to a kid who got very antsy during the second hour.  3 of 5 stars.