WftPotA: An intelligent movie trilogy about smart apes comes to an epic conclusion

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The Planet of the Apes prequel series which began with  Rise of the Planet of the Apes in 2011, followed by Dawn of the Planet of the Apes in 2014, comes to an epic conclusion with the just released War for the Planet of the Apes. Other than the unwieldy titles, there is virtually nothing to complain about in what is perhaps the most intelligent sci-fi movie series of modern times. Particularly after the disappointing remake by Tim Burton in 2001, few industry watchers could have foreseen this franchise finding new life in any meaningful way. The original Planet of the Apes from 1968 starred Charlton Heston and was based on the 1963 French novel by Pierre Boulle (he also wrote The Bridge over the River Kwai). This new series serves as a prequel, setting up the chain of events which leads to apes gaining intelligence, speech and eventually, mastery over man.

A lot of the credit for this new series goes to the husband-and-wife team of Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver, who wrote the script for Rise and Dawn, while also co-producing all three films. Their achievement is surprising given their previous track record which is nothing to write home about. In fact, they didn’t even have any credited screenplays between 1997’s pulpy sci-fi horror film The Relic and the 2011 reboot of the Apes franchise. I would love to know what these two were doing during these years and how they convinced Fox to greenlight this smart and insightful approach to bringing the Apes property back to the screen. They also wrote the story/ screenplay for 2015’s Jurassic World and while that film was an outstanding box office success, it shows nowhere near the same level of attention to plot detail or plausibility as this new Apes series.

Another key factor is the extraordinary use of motion-capture and CGI technology in recent years and that too, applied at scale across dozens of characters. But mo-cap technology is only as good as the actor behind the CGI and in this case, no praise is too great for the unique talents of Andy Serkis as Caesar. Surely Serkis deserves a lifetime recognition award of the highest order for the iconic CGI characters he has brought to life over the past 2 decades, starting with Gollum in The Lord of the Rings (2001-03) and then the titular character in King Kong (2005); I am looking forward to his rendition of Baloo the bear in the Warner Bros. version of The Jungle Book which will be released in October 2018 with Serkis behind the camera as well.

War concludes the epic saga of Caesar the chimpanzee. In Rise, we are introduced to baby Caesar, whose mother was experimented on with an intelligence-enhancing viral-based drug developed to treat Alzheimer’s. Caesar inherits his mother’s intelligence and in due course, uses an improved version of the drug to enhance and free several other apes from the testing facility and also from the San Francisco zoo. After a pitched battle with police on the Golden Gate bridge, Caesar and the newly-intelligent apes escape to the woods outside the city. Meanwhile, the drug mutates and sets off a worldwide pandemic, wiping out most of humanity. Ten years later, in Dawn, Caesar and his tribe have established a settlement in the woods. But he has to deal with another ape Koba, who challenges his leadership and also triggers a confrontation with a group of surviving humans in San Francisco. Caesar defuses the conflict with the help of a sympathetic human family and the film ends Godfather-style with Caesar re-establishing his authority as the leader of the apes. War is set 5 years later and sets up the ‘final conflict’ between apes and man, as Caesar and his tribe are hunted down by a well-trained and armed militia led by a merciless colonel. One can see the influences of both Western and prison break genres in parts of the movie; and even though it’s the longest film of the trilogy, there is a strong forward momentum to the plot and the running time of 2 hours and 22 minutes does not weigh the film down.

The film also continues to explore the recurring themes of the franchise – racism, family bonds, loyalty, betrayal and revenge. Throughout the films, we are frequently left to wonder if it’s the apes or the humans who are more civilized. I had read that the third film was the darkest of the trilogy but in fact there are surprising moments of humor, particularly with the new ape character named “bad ape” and voiced by Steve Zahn. Woody Harrelson plays the ruthless colonel with an understated menace and keen sense of history and purpose, rather than as an over-the-top psycho (which Harrelson is well capable of doing!). The plot also employs the clever use of a little orphaned human girl Nova (played by Amiah Miller) who joins Caesar’s group and acts as a counterpoint to all the human brutality.

The technical level in this series has been consistently top class, but in this third installment it’s worth calling out Michael Seresin’s cinematography, particularly in scenes at the apes’ waterfall camp and later on the beach (which recalls the iconic final moments of the 1968 original). Also, composer Michael Giacchino employs some interesting percussion to heighten the tempo in key scenes. I’d love to see both of them get Oscar nominations this year.

For anyone new to the series, I recommend watching the 1968 original followed by this prequel trilogy. Fans of the series will enjoy references to earlier films, such as the beach scene or the use of character names like Nova and Cornelius.


Spider-Man: Homecoming – Engaging characters make up for ho-hum action

The Marvel-Sony partnership prompted by the critical and commercial failure of 2014’s Andrew Garfield starrer The Amazing Spider-Man 2, seems to be paying off. Early indications are that Spider-Man: Homecoming is going to pull in box-office cash in the same range that Sam Raimi’s original trilogy scooped up from 2002 to 2007. Reaction from critics and audiences likewise has been positive.

What’s made the difference?

Firstly, Spider-Man is now integrated into the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) via his introductory appearance in Captain America: Civil War last year. Audiences are have been deeply involved with the characters in the MCU for some years now. Naturally, any new character introduced into an MCU film benefits from that halo effect. And that’s exactly what was set up in Civil War; we were introduced to a teenage Spider-Man played by Tom Holland and another new character Prince T’Challa of Wakanda (aka the Black Panther), both being set up for their respective solo films. And so here we are with Homecoming successfully picking up speed in the slipstream of Civil War and Black Panther scheduled to follow suit next February. Audiences know that whenever they go to watch an MCU film featuring any one character/ team, they will get some bonus Marvel character appearances as well; in the case of Homecoming, the guest stars are Iron Man, his security chief Happy Hogan (played by director of the first two Iron Man films, Jon Favreau), Pepper Potts and Captain America appearing in some public service videos.

Second, this time around audiences don’t have to endure an entire film repeating the well-known origin story of Spider-Man bitten by a radioactive spider. Instead, we get to see the character already set up with his powers and his suit. The fun part is seeing how his mundane teenage world contrasts with the jet-setting lifestyles of the Avengers, who he looks up to and so desperately wants to be a part of.

Third, the casting this time really works:-

EVERYBODY likes (loves!) Marisa Tomei as Aunt May.

Michael Keaton’s Adrian Toomes (aka the Vulture) is the best villain in the MCU (traditionally a weak area) and the 2nd best Spidey villain after Alfred Molina’s Doc Octopus from 2004’s Spider-Man 2. While not as tragic a figure as Doc Ock, Toomes’ motivation to move into a life of crime is something one can sort of empathize with.

Peter Parker’s high school gang are all interesting characters and oh-so-ethnically-diverse; his best buddy Ned is played by Jacob Batalon, who is of Filipino origin; class nerd Michelle is played by the multi-ethnic Zendaya; love interest Liz is played by African-American Laura Harrier and class smart-ass Flash who is blond and muscled in the comics is now played by Tony Revolori, who is of Guatemalan descent.

In fact, the only character I didn’t really care too much about is Peter Parker himself. Not because Tom’s a bad actor, but perhaps because the 21-year-old actor is too good at acting as a whiny 15-year-old motor-mouth who wants everything…at one point in the film, I really couldn’t handle that non-stop high pitched voice of his as he provided a running commentary during an action sequence!

Speaking of action sequences, that was the key weak link in the film for me. While I was engaged with all the characters, the action and the fights didn’t hold my attention at all. I think it’s because the outcome is so predictable. C’mon! it’s a PG-13 film. Of course, no one important is going to die or get maimed. This isn’t Game of Thrones, right? Well, to be fair to the studio, they did try that route in 2014’s The Amazing Spider-Man 2 with Mary Jane Watson; I don’t think that movie failed because of that plot point at the end, but it’s understandable that the producers didn’t want anything really nasty to happen to any characters in this all-important reboot. And so, we end up with 3 action set-pieces which are all big-scale and spectacular, but not really gripping.

What was fun about the action scenes was all the showcasing of all the tech that Tony Stark had built into Peter Parker’s suit. The suit AI (F.R.I.D.A.Y.), a female version of J.A.R.V.I.S. seemed a bit too good to be true, even more intelligent that J.A.R.V.I.S., it seemed to me!

And to round off the complaints, I still dislike the mismatched fonts of the movie title.

By now, anyone who’s been to a few Marvel movies knows to wait back for mid-credits and post-credits stingers. Well, there are two in this movie. The first stinger sets up a potential villain for the sequel, a criminal named Mac Gargan who becomes the Scorpion in the comic books. The 2nd one is really cheeky joke, eliciting appreciative laughter from the audience in the theatre.

And so, we have a Sony back on track with the Spider-Man franchise, with more than a bit of help from their ‘friends’ at Marvel/ Disney. Fans can only hope that this success could fuel a similar partnership between Marvel and Fox to resurrect the Fantastic Four franchise (although Marvel boss Kevin Feige has assured reporters that the possibility is beyond remote).

We still have one MCU film to go this year – the ‘buddy road film’ Thor: Ragnarok releasing in November, featuring Thor and the Hulk forced into mortal combat in an alien coliseum.

Next year, there are no less than 6 Marvel films! Three are MCU films from Disney – Black Panther (Feb), Avengers: Infinity War (May) and Ant-Man & the Wasp (July). The other three are mutant films from Fox – X-Men: The New Mutants (Apr), Deadpool 2 (June) and X-Men: Dark Phoenix (Nov). Oh, the joy!