Saturday, July 29, 2017

War for the Planet of the Apes, Dunkirk, Atomic Blonde, Valerian Reviews

War for the Planet of the Apes
Dir. Matt Reeves
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The original Planet of the Apes from 1968 is one of the greatest science fiction films ever made, and one of the reasons its outlandish premise - filled with spaceships and talking apes - rose above the status of b-movie dreck was due to its ingenious and groundbreaking use of special make-up effects. It is, in fact, the reason the make-up category exists at the Oscars. 40+ years later in 2011, the beloved series is rebooted with Rise of the Planet of the Apes, itself spawning two sequels, and reinvents the wheel again, doing for motion capture technology what the original did for practical make-up effects. War for the Planet of the Apes is not only an emotional journey and a satisfying end to a trilogy, but also testament to how technology and CGI effects can simultaneously add summer blockbuster spectacle to a film and add rich layers of emotional resonance and humanity, helping to create actual, real performances. If this third film doesn't finally earn this series an Oscar for visual effects, something must be rigged!

The story follows the continued man-ape struggle established in the first two films. Caesar (Andy Serkis), leading his simian tribe, attempts to keep the peace between the apes and humans, but is forced into conflict when they suffer catastrophic losses after the ruthless Colonel (Woody Harrelson) leads a military attack on their woodland hideout. As the Colonel and Caesar journey inevitably toward a face-to-face battle, Caesar is wrestling with his own dark instincts, afraid of turning into the merciless Koba (Toby Kebbell) from Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, who harbinged a dangerous hatred towards humans. Caesar wants to break this cycle of violence, but his conscience is pushed to its limits after the Colonel starts mass slaughtering his monkey pals and corrals his friends and family into a kind of monkey concentration camp.

This may be one of the bleakest mainstream blockbusters ever made. The ape characters are well-drawn, perfectly capturing not only the physical struggles of war, but the internal struggle of one's soul. I was struck particularly by Caesar's eyes throughout the film, often shot in extreme close-ups, revealing a hauntingly intelligent world-weariness. Other stand-out apes include Caesar's orangutan "adviser" Maurice (Karin Konoval), whose mystic, "wise man" presence I always enjoy watching, and a new character, "Bad Ape" (Steve Zahn), a wide-eyed, hairless, former zoo chimp who's gone a bit stir crazy after living on his own for years. Zahn's performance adds both a dose of necessary comedic relief to an otherwise dour film as well as a childish sense of vulnerability. There are also some not-so-cool apes called "Donkeys," who work for the humans to enslave and kill their own kind, which I found to be a pretty powerful metaphor for cowardly wartime traitors.  This movie almost entirely focuses on the apes and their existential, ethical, and internal conflicts, totally outshining their human counterparts.

There are two main human characters this go-around. As previously mentioned, Woody Harrelson plays the main baddie. While I appreciated some of his character details (he shaves his head to be as un-apelike as possible), he ultimately did not carry the same kind of Nazi-like malice that you'd find from, say, Ralph Fiennes in Schindler's List or Christoph Waltz in Inglourious Basterds. It's weird to say that for a movie about talking monkeys, but that's the level director Matt Reeves is shooting for here. The other main human character is a silent little girl named Nova (Amiah Miller), who fans will understand as being Charlton Heston's gal pal from the original '68 film. I felt this was War's most egregious attempt at making pointless connections to other films (she gets her name from a discarded automobile decal), but luckily War doesn't pull a "Marvel" or "DC" and jam as many nods and winks as possible into its 2+ hour run time.

My biggest disappointment with the film is its relatively small scale. With 'War' in its title, I was expecting more of a full-on apes vs. soldiers death-fest, but it was more scaled-back and intimate than I would've expected (I think the second film, Dawn, should have switched titles with this one). I also felt that many of the "deep" themes here, such as finding hope in war, wrestling with your conscience in the face of evil, and surviving in spite of the odds, are cliched, only becoming a novelty due to the fact that these themes usually aren't accompanied by an army of photo-realistic talking chimps.

It may not be a perfect film, but Caesar's character arc from Rise to Dawn to War has been fascinating to watch, and War ends his journey in a pretty satisfying way. While I think some of the themes here are perhaps a bit too reminiscent of past war films and the pacing drags a bit, War for the Planet of the Apes is still a great example of how not all summer movies have to follow the same whiz-bang "superhero" template.

Rating: B

Dir. Christopher Nolan
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Every director has their "schtick" - that single enigmatic something they can't help but return to again and again. Martin Scorsese, in one way or another, typically returns to his religious roots and his Catholic guilt. Tim Burton's always going on about misunderstood outcasts. Woody Allen creepily continues to make movies about older men with younger women. Christopher Nolan is similarly predictable - almost all of his movies end up being about the construct of time, emotionless protagonists, and grand spectacle. Dunkirk is no exception. Detailing the massive evacuation of 400,000 retreating British soldiers out of German-occupied France during WWII, it's almost as if this film is the Nolan-iest of Nolan movies because it literally operates only those three levels.

The film is split into three interwoven storylines, land, sea, and air, each with its own flow of time. One section takes place over the period of a week, following the holed-up soldiers at "The Mole," the uncovered ocean-side dock where the 400,000 men are basically sitting ducks while waiting for rescue. Another section takes place over a day and follows a private citizen ship over rough waters led by a father (Mark Rylance), his son (Tom Glynn-Carney) and his friend (Barry Keoghan), crossing the English channel on order of the British Navy. The final section, the "air," takes place over the span of an hour following a fighter pilot (Tom Hardy) and two wingmen providing air support. Despite the fact that all three of these stories take place in vastly different time spans, they are cut together in a disorientingly back-and-forth pattern. It's difficult to tell what's happening when, and because it's unclear how the three stories connect in time at any given moment, the suspense that's supposed to be steadily building came in fits and starts and just didn't work for me.

Another thing that turned me off of this film was Nolan's intentional decision to not create any characters. He's never been known as much of an "emotional" director; his biggest leap in that direction, Interstellar, was mocked by critics since Nolan's "love across the universe" idea was the clunkiest aspect of the film. In retort, Dunkirk completely lacks any personality or humanity. There may be human bodies in this movie, but there is barely a sketch of a person behind them. I suppose Nolan wanted to make a film that was more about a collective experience than an individual journey, but to me, that just left me with an empty, cold feeling by the end of it, no matter how many magnificently-shot dogfights there were or how heart-pumpingly loud Hans Zimmer's "ticking clock" music score blasted around me.

I would describe Dunkirk as less of a film than a big, loud IMAX experience, which it does deliver on. Even when he's making movies about dreams or men dressed as bats, Christopher Nolan grounds his movies in a very immersive, tactile feel, eschewing digital cameras for classier, though more difficult to use, traditional film stock. Although he doesn't have to do the added work of making a sci-fi world realistic as this is a true story, Nolan makes Dunkirk shine with amazingly staged, clearly complicated action sequences that feature very little CGI or computer effects. However, after the repetitious, non-stop action continues past the hour-mark, the novelty starts to wear off. There is no real connection to the characters to heighten the experience of danger, so everything comes off as more or less a show-off for Christopher Nolan's filmmaking bravura. Maybe that's what rocks your socks off, but I was hoping for a little bit more from this incredible true story.

I know I'm in the minority here, and that my unenthusiastic opinion is "wrong." Hey - it happens to the best of us. Some movies now considered classics - like Blade Runner and Blue Velvet - Roger Ebert himself gave a negative review. While I do think film fans should trek to their closest IMAX theater to see this film that fully utilizes the format, I guess I just prefer my war films with a human element. Nothing in Dunkirk comes close to classics like Saving Private Ryan - in Spielberg's legendary Normandy sequence, we are totally with the perspective of Tom Hanks' character all the way, rooted in this experience through the eyes of an actual soldier and it's all the more powerful for it. In Dunkirk, for better or worse, we instead see war through the emotionally-distant lens of master craftsman Christopher Nolan.

Rating: B-

Atomic Blonde
Dir. David Leitch
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Charlize Theron is a badass. That's just an inarguable fact. Which made her recent villainous stint in Fate of the Furious so... infuriating... because she just sat behind a computer and "hacked" her way into the action scenes. For those who wanted a return to her ass-kicking savagery in Max Mad: Fury Road, there's Atomic Blonde, a graphic novel adaptation that's more or less a stylistic excuse for Theron to punch, stab, and viciously brutalize her way through a series of nameless Russian goons. What's not to like? Well... all the parts where she's not brutalizing said goons.

The story follows undercover MI6 Agent Lorraine Braughton (Theron), an ice cold killer (we're literally introduced to her soaking in a tub of ice) who's sent to Berlin in the 80s to retrieve a important dossier of double agents; however, what's on this dossier isn't important to the plot - it's as much a MacGuffin as the microfilm in North by Northwest. Once in Berlin, Agent Braughton partners up with station chief David Percival (James McAvoy) to help navigate her way through a network of generic Russian spies to get what she needs... by any means necessary - all while classic 80s songs blast in the background and seemingly every building is fit with retro neon lights.

I don't have much to say about this movie other than there's a couple cool action scenes and that it's completely stupid and ideologically empty. There is an intense 15-minute stairway fight edited to look as if it was shot in one long take (a la Birdman) that is worth sticking it out for, but the characters and story were weaker than the crumbling Berlin Wall. There's some kind of lame point trying to be made about cleaning up the government's mess in the aftermath of the Cold War, but it's all so clunky and buried under confusing and cartoonishly dumb double- and triple-crossings that none of it matters.

Rating: C

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets
Dir. Luc Besson
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Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, the latest space opera from director Luc Besson (The Fifth Element) had a whopping production budget of around $180 million. On it's opening weekend, Valerian made $17 million. That's not just a bomb, that's a "someone probably lost their job" disaster. So while it's doubtful that we'll see this movie turned into the next Star Wars, at the very least we can see all of those burned dollars up on the screen. Valerian has its share of problems - an unfocused narrative, miscast actors, and cringe-worthy dialogue - but it's one of the most visually-spectacular films I've seen this year, with a Mad Max: Fury Road level of thought and world-building detail on every frame.

The story, adapted from the French comic series Valerian and Laureline, follows 28th century special operatives Valerian (Dane DeHaan) and Laureline (Cara Delevigne), working together to maintain order in the universe. The two undertake a mission to a bustling space-metropolis called Alpha, where a mysterious, radioactive dark force buried in its core is threatening the peaceful existence of the thousands of alien cultures on board. That's sort of the overall generic plot - but the life of the movie is in its "pinball" narrative, haphazardly bouncing from one colorful corner of the universe to the next.

A lot of cool sci-fi concepts are littered throughout: there's a sequence that takes place in an inter-dimensional marketplace that felt like something out of Rick and Morty, there's a charming shape-shifting character played by Rihanna who appropriately enough feels like she lacks an identity, and there's a whole sequence on an alien planet where Valerian and Laureline are captured by these hulking frog creatures that was full of fun, danger, and adventure. I just wish that sense of fun was consistent throughout the film.

The main problem with this movie is that when the side-adventures wind down and we get back to the main narrative, things slow to a crawl with a story that's more lame than your standard Saturday morning cartoon. The two leads also lack any chemistry whatsoever, making their bubbling romance feel stilted and forced. DeHaan and Delevigne, while fine actors, were not good fits for these characters, meant to be Indiana Jones/Lara Croft-esque experienced soldiers with a devil may care attitude. Neither pulls this off very well, and the fact that the entire film has this weightless green-screen feel, their performances are even more removed from reality.

Overall, I found a lot of enjoyable bits and pieces in Valerian and it rivals James Cameron's Avatar in its creation of otherworldly "natural" creatures and environments, but ultimately it adds up to little else than an overlong amusement park ride.

Rating: C+

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