WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES






This is the end, beautiful friend.

The end of the re-imagined Planet of the Apes trilogy.

Rise of the Planet of the Apes surprised me back in 2011.  I feared that a re-hash of 1968’s Planet of the Apes might be terrible (what gave me that idea, eh, Tim Burton?)  But they surmounted all my prejudices by bringing a fresh eye to time-worn plot points (scientist tampers with nature ... gets his comeuppance) and made the story delightfully emotional, leading to a well-deserved epic finale.

They followed this with Dawn, which advanced the story, made the characters more complex and compelling, and, again, told an old fashioned story (an underling’s cowardice threatens to scupper their ruler’s good work) in a fresh and diverting way.

Anticipation, then, for the inevitable final part of the triptych, War, was very high.  History is, after all, lousy with examples of trilogies that fell apart with the third film.  Aliens, Superman, Godfather, Spider-Man, X-Men, Jurassic Park, Fast and Furious ... The Evil Dead (joking).


Monkeys mounted.  A scene deliberately visually echoing the original Apes films.  It's also the only scene where California looks anything like we expect it to look. 

This film is set two years on from Dawn, but the events happen as a direct result of that film.  But, for me, this film doesn’t push forward beyond Dawn.  That film was shockingly different from the one which preceded; the world had changed, the characters had evolved (literally and emotionally), it even looked different.  This film looks very similar to Dawn, damp and dour, cold and getting colder.

Thematically it is similar too, with Caesar (played, once again, by Mr. Mo-Cap, Andy Serkis) trying to maintain the peace and the harmony of his tribe by reiterating his belief that apes together are strong.

But the world beyond the forest has turned against them.  A mysterious ‘Colonel’ has declared war on the apes and, as the film’s opening sequence shows, that is a full-on hot war, with massive casualties on both sides.

It is to the film’s credit that it show’s this introductory battle as being terrifying and brutal on both sides.  This isn’t good-guys versus bad-guys deal.  It’s a confused and convoluted war.

Indeed, the soldiers use simian scouts to help them track the wild apes, these are apes who have been tamed and branded and are dubbed ‘donkey’.  This immediately put me in mind of pre-Revolutionary Indian wars.

Caesar himself has grown in stature.  Whereas he was seen as leader, he has now been elevated to legendary status.  It is befitting, then, that the shadow of Charlton Heston is cast across this film, but not Heston the last human in a mad world, this is Heston the living legend.  Caesar is whipped and enslaved by someone he swears vengeance on.  All very Ben-Hur-like.  But Caesar is trying to lead his people to the Promised Land, so he is also Moses to them.

However, this is all played out against a background which is deliberately reminiscent of The Indian wars, as well as the American slave trade, with elements of Nazi concentration camps and prisoner-of-war camps.  It’s a confusing mish-mash of allusions.


One of the most interesting plotlines involves Kurtz McCullough's reliance on 'Donkeys', collaborator apes.  Here, the gorilla known as Red is a sort of Fletcher Christian to Woody's Bligh.

And this where I started having real difficulty with the film,  It lacks clear focus.  When we finally meet the enigmatic Colonel, (played well by a very calm, restrained Woody Harrelson), he reels off the names of wartime leaders he admires - Wellington gets a mention, as do both Custer and Sitting Bull.  (He doesn’t mention Walter Kurtz, though, just saying).  When he gets his big exposition scene, to explain to Caesar when his epiphany happened and why he believes what he believes, it simply doesn’t make sense.  His grudge is against the virus that was released in the first film, not with the apes.  So, he lacks clear motivation.

Caesar’s motivations are much clearer and simpler, he wants revenge.  But that’s never a positive driving force for a protagonist.  It never ends well.  He has lost the vision of a leader and has allowed the battle to become personal.  As Colonel Kurtz McCullough mentions, Caesar is very emotional.

The film also has a confused sense of geography.  I don’t know the Americas well but, when someone says they’re heading for the Californian border, I don’t expect to see ski-lodges and snow.  I’m not saying that’s not right, but I do feel that the audience needs a bit of help understanding the journey(s) the apes make. 

I also think the film was trying to make a comment about the madness of building walls to keep out foreigners and, I suspect, that the wall in question was between America and Canada (again, I don’t associate Mexico with snow), but the point of this was lost in the plethora of other indiscriminate allusions and symbols on offer.

Added to which, director Matt Reeves clearly thinks he’s making a Viet-Nam film.  The grunts have messages written on their helmets (like the famous poster for 1987’s Full Metal Jacket).  They refer to the apes by the pun ‘Kong’ (as in, Viet-Kong) and Colonel Kurtz McCullough enjoys several similarities with Brando’s similarly spaced-out soldier.  There is even a gag, a visual reference to Apocalypse Now (1979), which made me groan out loud.  

Anyone who thinks they've spotted any stray similarities between The Colonels is clearly mad.  As mad as they are.
One expects to see fan service and popular culture references in a Marvel movie; because they are not typically dealing with issues of slavery and man’s endless history of violence and discrimination.  I did not expect, nor welcome, such gags in this film.  It should be more seriously-minded than that.

It’s worth mentioning that Serkis’ performance as Caesar continues to be miraculous, shining through the digital mask they have added.  I genuinely felt he was robbed when he didn’t receive an Oscar nomination for Dawn.  But, of course, the power of his performance was plain to see in both previous films.  Part of my disappointment with this chapter is, I think, simply that the miraculous doesn’t feel quite so miraculous third time round.

Where Weta Workshop’s CGI works brilliantly is in the new character, who calls himself ‘Bad Ape’ (because that’s the phrase he heard most from the humans).  This is a fantastic performance from Steve Zahn; but something troubled ne about him.  He’s there to mostly be the comic relief and, as I’ve indicated, that feels out-of-step in a grim film concerning mankind’s inhumanity and vanity.  But that wasn’t what niggled me about him.  I couldn’t put my finger on it, until the friend I saw the film with hit the nail on the head: “He’s Dobby the House Ape”.

That said, the special effects are flawless (one or two of the riding shots look a bit dodgy ... But riding shots often do), and there is a real scope to the visuals.  It’s certainly played out on a much larger canvas than the previous two films.  It just doesn’t feel like the story-telling has evolved as much as the apes or the technology used to create them.



Obviously they have Andy Serkis back as Caesar; cos no one can make a monkey of himself in a mo-cap suit quite like him; apart from stuntman and movement choreographer, Terry Notary; who is playing Rocket, so that's alright.

They’ve also introduced a silent child with a doll, not simply, one assumes, because she looks like Newt in Aliens (1986) but, presumably, because they wanted someone to exemplify the possible future of human/ape relations.  Her silence, which is apparently an inability to talk brought about by the mutating virus, is evidence of the human race devolving, while the ape race is growing ever more sophisticated and complex.  That’s a great idea, and one which the original Apes films - particularly Conquest Of (1972) and Battle For (1973) - addressed in various ways.  But it isn’t developed here.  So, there’s no real purpose in the child being there.  Oh, apart from the time she walks through the middle of the heavily-defended military camp and none of the soldiers notice her.  Presumably losing the ability to speak also makes one invisible.

Maurice, the Orang-Utan, once again serves as Caesar's moral compass.  And Nova's baby-sitter.
That said, these particular soldiers are significantly dumber than the apes they are guarding.

The greatest issue I had with War for the Planet of the Apes came with the actual war itself - which suddenly and conveniently kicks off in the film’s final act, just as all the other business reaches its climax.  This war, it turns out, is not really between ape and man, but between two factions of men. 

So the characters we care about are not invested in the titular war, they don’t care who wins and, therefore, neither did I.  This is not good for my emotional involvement in the culmination of a three-movie-long story arc.

As the first film did, War manages to slide in subtle references to the original Apes films, which most of the audience won’t notice.  For example, Colonel Kurtz McCullough’s logo is the Δ and Ω  used in Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970), while the horse-riding apes enjoy a canter along the beach, much as Charlton Heston and his Nova did back in the original Planet of the Apes.

We went in to War for the Planet of the Apes filled with childish hope.  We came out deflated.  We’d had such high expectations for this film.  I’d heard rumours that it was scoring massively on Rotten Tomatoes and that maybe, finally, we had a trilogy where the films kept getting better, rather than peaking at number two.

But no.  You had your chance, guys, and you blew it.  God damn you all to Hell.


Dir:  Matt Reeves
Scriptwriters:  Mark Bomback & Matt Reeves
Cert: 12A
Dur: 140 mins

CHURCHILL vs CHURCHILL



Back in 2005, just in time for Oscar consideration, the film Capote was released.  It featured Philip Seymour Hoffman as the troubled, effete, prima-donna, Truman Capote, struggling with his inner demons as he endeavoured to write his book 'In Cold Blood'.  About nine months later, a film called Infamous was released. It featured Toby Jones as the troubled, effete, prima-donna, Truman Capote, struggling with his inner demons as he endeavoured to write his book 'In Cold Blood'.

Hoffmann won the Oscar for his performance, Jones did not.

Then, in 2012, just in time for Oscar consideration, the film Hitchcock was released.  It featured Anthony Hopkins as the troubled, anxious film-director Alfred Hitchcock as he struggled to complete his film 'Psycho'.  About a month before this, a film called The Girl had been released.  It featured Toby Jones as the cold, controlling film director Alfred Hitchcock as he struggled to complete his film 'The Birds'.

Jones was nominated for a hatful of awards.  Hopkins was not.

So that's the real Hitch, the real Toby Jones and the real Anthony Hopkins.  I wonder if it's a real crow?
It happens.  Sometimes an idea dawns on several people at once and turns into two very similar films being made at the same time.

Remember Olympus Has Fallen and White House Down (both 2013)?

Or the aliens-invade-LA films Skyline and Battle: LA (the end of 2010 and the beginning of 2011 respectively)?

Or Deep Impact and Armageddon (both 1998)?

Or the disastrous movie Volcano and the even worse Dante's Peak (both 1997)?

Well, it's still happening.  Last year saw the story of the assassination of Nazi officer Reinhard Heydrich dramatised in the film Anthropoid (featuring, as it happens, Toby Jones in a supporting role).  This year will see the release of HHhH (based on the novel of the same name) which dramatises the assassination of Nazi officer Reinhard Heydrich.

And now, staying with World War Two, we have two biopics of Winston Churchill.  And which one is Toby Jones in?  Hah - neither!

Let's be honest, playing Churchill is probably the role that, outside of Sherlock Holmes and King Lear, actors of a certain age want to have a crack at.  Michael Gambon gave us his Churchill last year, in TV's Churchill's Secret, as did John Lithgow in The Crown.  Timothy Spall gave us his Churchill in The King's Speech in 2010.  Robert Hardy virtually made a living as Churchill in the 80s and 90s.  But, let's face it, we all prefer Ian McNiece's rendition in Doctor Who in 2010.  That was Churchill and the Daleks, for goodness sake!

But now we have two new contenders.  We have Brian Cox as the titular Churchill.  That had a brief run at the cinema last month.  You might still be able to find it, if you have decent cinemas in your area.  Interest in it may be renewed since, just this week, we have seen the launch of the trailer for Darkest Hour, which is (based purely on the trailer) already getting rumblings about an Oscar for its Churchill - one Gary Oldman.

Let's have a look at the form, shall we ... First out of the gate was Brian Cox:



And the young pretender ... Gary Oldman:


Well, I like Brian Cox.  But I also like Gary Oldman.  But who's best?

There's only one way to be sure!





 

SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING



Well, it was a struggle, but I managed to find a poster for this film, that didn't look like it was put together by the Graphic Designer's 12 year old kid.
            Spider-Man: Homecoming is so called, not because of the Homecoming Dance that features briefly in it; nor is it so-called because the story features a major “there’s no place like home” revelation.  It is called Homecoming as a knowing meta-narrative nod to the audience, that the friendly neighbourhood Spider-Man has returned to the Marvel fold after decades in the wilderness.
            Spider-Man is their Mickey Mouse, he’s their Superman; he’s the flag-bearer for their entire business and, anachronistically, because of difficult financial decisions made decades ago; they haven’t been able to use him.  But now they can.  This was the chance for Kevin Feige to roll up his sleeves and say “Right, this is how you’re supposed to do a Spidey movie!”
            What’s at stake, then, is whether Marvel can weave its magic over its own characters, when they have been damaged whilst on loan.  Fox keeps managing to pull the X-Men’s asses out of the fire.  For every desperately poor Wolverine (2009), there’s a surprisingly rich First Class (2011), for every Apocalypse (2016), there’s a Logan (2017).  And then, of course, there’s Deadpool!  But The Fantastic Four, bless them, they have enjoyed no such success; each of Fox’s FF films has dug a deeper hole in the affections of the audience than the one before it.  But, despite that, it has become abundantly clear that Fox will never return them to the fold.  So, Marvel is moving on without them.  Ramping up The Inhumans as replacements for the X-Men; going cosmic without the need for the Negative Zone and Galactus.
            But Spider-Man is different.  Apparently, so the story goes, Raimi wanted to continue his old-school approach to Spidey by having his third film feature The Vulture.  Along with Doc Ock and Green Goblin, he was one of comic-book Spidey’s longest serving adversaries (first appearing in issue 2), and one that the fans were desperate to see brought to the screen.  However, this decision was overruled and, instead, Sony decided to go with Venom - a character from a very different period in Spidey’s history, with a very different fan-base.  Well, we all know how Spider-Man 3 (2007) worked out.  But that was nothing to the delights which lay in store when the franchise went ‘Amazing’.  I gave a fair and balanced viewing of that debacle, here.
            So, Sony realised that its (galactically stupid) decisions were losing it profit.  Years of back-room shenanigans ensued and, finally, they struck a deal with Marvel to return the character, at least in part, to the MCU (that’s Marvel Cinematic Universe, in case you haven’t been keeping up with your Three Letter Acronyms).  This complicated process has led to no fewer than twelve credited producers and six credited writers.
            So, what we have here is what’s now referred to as a soft re-boot.  We don’t get Uncle Ben again, we don’t get the spider bite (although it is mentioned), we don’t get the Spider Sense, or J. Jonah Jameson; but we do get Peter back at school, navigating the corridor politics of bullies and girls and tests.  We also get The Vulture.  Point made, Kevin; point made!
The 'If This Be My Destiny' story (it's not actually called The Final Chapter) is one of the most famous episodes from the early Lee/Ditko comics, and is now brought to the screen, as are many other careful references to the source material.
            The film heaves with smart acknowledgements to the original 60s comics; for those who are familiar enough to spot them.  It still irks, mind you, that the creators behind a lot of these moments, aren’t credited among those six writers.  Lee and Ditko are, but the others, John Romita, Don Heck, Brian Michael Bendis and the rest, they have to wait for a ‘based on characters created by’ acknowledgement at the very end of the credits.  ... After Robert Downey Jr’s Hair Consultant.  But then, I suppose they can’t all have cameos.
            Like the original Lee/Ditko comics, this is as much a High School coming-of-age story as it is a superhero adventure.  Yes, Tom Holland is 21 playing 15, but he actually gets away with it.  Unlike Andrew Garfield’s turn in ‘Amazing’, I can actually buy Holland as a kid.  Not too nerdy (not as socially inept as Tobey Maguire’s version), but not obviously too fit, too tall and too cool for school (as Garfield was).
            Holland’s Spider-Man is clumsy and confused and over-excited and sometimes scared.  He is, in other words, a teenager!  That works for the demographics of the Marvel movie audience, but it was also key to the character from day one.  As a comic-reading friend of mine once noted ruefully, back in the 90s: I remember a time when Peter Parker was older than me.  But the key to him is that he’s a kid, a kid given extraordinary powers that shift his entire world.  And he isn’t a billionaire or a god or a world-renowned scientist, he’s a kid.  How does a kid deal with the powers of a superhero?  That has always been the dilemma at the heart of the Spider-Man story, that’s the story that this generation of kids deserve to experience. 
            These early scenes fairly echo with the footsteps of John Hughes.  I’m grateful they resisted the temptation to put Don’t You Forget About Me on the soundtrack during the detention scene, and it is forgivable that they give in, briefly, to a Ferris Bueller gag.  But it isn’t all levity.  There is one moment in the movie, above all others, when Peter is alone and in peril and he panics.  He screams for help and, right there, we are forced to confront the fact that, however cocky and sophisticated and knowing and cynical our kids are ... They’re still just kids.
High-School Avengers Assemble:  Iron Man (top), Scarlett Witch (left), Bruce Banner (middle), Black Widow (seated), Captain America (right)
           This also informs Peter’s desperation to please Tony Stark.  He’s subconsciously looking for a father figure.  Shame he picked a globe-trotting billionaire narcissist egomaniac who has serious daddy issues of his own.
            For me, the characters and the small moments are much more impressive than the big set-pieces.  The ferry scene, which features so predominantly in the trailer, feels like a mash-up of the bridge scene in Spider-Man 1 (2002), the train scene in Spider-Man 2 (2004) and, inevitably, the ferry scene in The Dark Knight (2008).  There’s a similar big moment in Washington that also, for me, felt cluttered and confused and overly-familiar. 
            A part of this clutter must be put down to Spidey talking constantly to the AI of his suit.  Essentially, Stark has engineered the Spider Suit as a more streamlined version of his own Iron Man suit, complete with chatty computer interface.  This gives Spidey lots of fun toys to play with, some of which are unnecessary, some of which are just plain dumb; but the main thing is, it gives him someone to talk to.  In the comics, Spidey never shuts up.  He’s trading witty one-liners with whoever he’s fighting (something we’ve already seen in his Civil War fight with Falcon) but also, when he’s alone, he thinks things through or talks to himself.  That’s difficult to do well in a film.  Having an on-board AI gives him someone to talk to which, therefore, gives him a platform to externalise all that teenage angst.
Pfft.  And Falcon thinks his wings are all that.
            At the other end of sci-fi tech scale, we have Michael Keaton’s Toomes.  He starts the film in a flashback, working as a contractor clearing up the alien tech and devastation after the New York fight from the Avengers movie.  He’s a working stiff who gets stiffed by the government, in the form of the all-new Department of Damage Control (how’s that for an oxymoron).  This pushes his business over the edge financially.  So, what’s he going to do?  Well, he has a pile of unrecycled Chitauri tech and an enthusiastic tinkerer on staff; so time to make like Tony Stark and build some weapons.
            His weapons manufacture is all very low tech, though, his  gadgets seem to be being assembled in, essentially, a garage.  He has limited aspirations for his toys; but that’s deliberate, because he wants to stay under the radar.  As he says - when the film proper starts - he’s been doing what he’s doing for eight years, without ever attracting the attention of the FBI or SHIELD or The Avengers.  He’s strictly small-fry.  But, if you push the little guy the wrong way, he can develop big ideas.  This is what took the honest business man and turned him into the gun-runner.  As Spider-Man repeatedly foils his plans, the gun-runner decides to step up a gear ... After repeatedly refusing the call to get properly nefarious, he finally gives in and does what any business man would do ... He steals from the opposition.
Psst ... A little bird told me you'll be playing a different kind of birdman ...
            The key to Toomes - and, no doubt, what attracted a heavy-hitter like Keaton - is that he speaks a lot of sense.  He has been treated badly by a high-handed military-industrial complex.  Tony Stark was a gun-runner before he found he could make more money elsewhere.  The American Dream was built on the belief that it is acceptable to do anything to support your family.  Toomes isn’t a grand-standing psychopath who wants to take over the world, he just wants to put his kids through college.
            There is an electrifying scene where Keaton locks eyes with Peter and calmly explains what he’ll do to stay in business.  No shouting, no histrionics, just one guy smiling while he threatens another.  That’s why you hire someone as complex as Michael Keaton, to get that intensity from a close-up shot. 
            Back in the ’80s, when he was best known for his comedies, there was always a dark edge to Keaton.  Ron Howard saw it first, when he cast him in Night Shift (1982), Tim Burton saw it when he made him Beetlejuice (1988), and John Schlesinger saw it when he cast him as the malignancy at the heart of Pacific Heights (1990).  There was always a recklessness in Keaton’s eyes which made him potentially dangerous.  Guess what:  It’s still there.  
            Of course, Toomes is a villain so, however reasonable his argument, however justifiable his cause, the fact that he is prepared to ignore morality and kill people for it, somewhat undermines his point.
            And Spidey is a hero so, no-matter that no-one believes in him, no-matter that he’s alone and out-classed and out-gunned; he’s still going to try and protect the little guy.  Cos that’s what Spidey always was, back in the early 70s, when four-year-old me learned to read on black-and-white reprints of John Romita and Ross Andru era Spidey .... He was always the little guy, always misunderstood, always struggling to balance the demands of real-life, relationships, work and super-heroing.
This isn't Tony Stark's happy face. Maybe he's just realised how few scenes he's in.
            The early scenes of Spidey keeping himself busy whilst waiting for ‘the call’ from The Avengers, are very reminiscent of Kick-Ass (2010) but then, they would be; that was Mark Millar’s take on an updated Spider-Man ... This is Marvel’s take on the same thing; it’s no surprise there are similarities.
            The film relies too heavily on the Toomes’ henchmen being as ham-fisted as Spidey, initially, is.  Otherwise, he’d’ve been killed pretty much at the start, and then where’s your movie?  But, because Holland is so likeable, and so endearingly clumsy, you go along with the film when it wanders into cliché or the odd page of lazy writing. 
            However, there’s one particular plot-twist that is just way too convenient, and stretches the bounds of credibility too far.  Nothing like the catalogue of contrivances in the last two Spidey films, though, so don’t worry.  It’s just that this film goes so far in making Peter human and fallible, and the world he inhabits, so credible, and the friends he spends time with, so nuanced and detailed and likeable ... That they nearly throw it all away with one plot contrivance too many.
            But - thanks to some classy writing and some brilliant acting from Michael Keaton - they bring it back from the edge in the nick of time.
It's just one of those boy-meets-suit, boy-loses-suit, boy-gets-suit-back-again kinda films
            So, this film isn’t spectacular.  It certainly isn’t amazing.  It is, however, friendly; and it’s great fun to finally see Spidey in Marvel’s neighbourhood.

Written by: Jonathan Goldstein, John Francis Daley, Jon Watts, Christopher Ford, Chris McKenna, Erik Sommers & Uncle Tom Cobbly
Directed by: Jon Watts
Cert: 12A
Dur: 133 mins