REVIEW: War for the Planet of the Apes (2017)

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Directed by Matt Reeves
Written by Mark Bomback and Matt Reeves, Based on Characters Created by Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver
Starring Andy Serkis, Woody Harrelson, Steve Zahn, Karen Konoval, Amiah Miller, Terry Notary

The Apes Origins Trilogy (feel free to steal that name) has to be one of the best examples of a hard reboot yet. Respecting the core tenents of the original film series while branching out to tell its own story with complex themes of inter-species relations and survival in a post-apocalyptic environment, this series of films presents a top-notch blockbuster experience. While Rise may have stumbled just a bit in its execution, I felt Dawn was near-perfect, so with War, hopes are riding quite high.

Caesar (Andy Serkis) and his apes are forced into a deadly conflict with an army of humans led by a ruthless Colonel (Woody Harrelson). After the apes suffer unimaginable losses, Caesar wrestles with his darker instincts and begins his own mythic quest to avenge his kind. As the journey finally brings them face to face, Caesar and the Colonel are pitted against each other in an epic battle that will determine the fate of both their species and the future of the planet.

It’s funny that the above synopsis refers to an epic battle, because while there is a traditional military battle at the end of the film, the conflict it actually refers to is the ideological and philosophical battle between both The Colonel and Caesar, and between Caesar’s better and darker natures. Like Rise and Dawn before it, War is a very nuanced and brooding type of film, more content to let its characters suffer in a world dying with a whimper.

More than the others, War contains numerous references to the original films, including but certainly not limited to: a new strain of the Simian Flu that robs humans of their speech and motor-functions, turning them into the primitive slaves of the original series; the X-crosses that used to mark the Forbidden Zones now used to string up captured Apes by the Alpha and Omega army, itself a references to the underground mutants of the second film; Maurice’s supposed rise as the Lawgiver character; I could go on and on. Obviously, Reeves and Bomback have great love and respect for the franchise.

But more importantly, they also know how to write their own story, and War is just as much proof of their prowess as Dawn was. All of these references are skillfully folded into a narrative quest undertaken by Caesar, in which he opens up the depths of his sin and confronts every choice he has ever made in a veritable Heart of Darkness-esque film is arresting, to say the least. As he agonizes over the losses suffered to humans over the years, and his crime against his own kind with the haunting spectre of Koba, Caesar trudges on through cold Northern wastes, racing toward a final confrontation with the Kurtz of this story, played menacingly by Woody Harrelson. Along the way, Andy Serkis, Terry Notary, Steve Zahn, and Karin Konoval make tremendous use of the near-perfect motion-capture method employed by Reeves’ technical wizards, and achieve scary-good performances that are, more often than not, way too realistic to disbelieve.

As strong as the visual effects and Michael Giacchino’s classical score are, the screenplay and the acting continuously roar back into the spotlight, especially with the film’s second half, set at the Alpha and Omega base within an abandoned weapons depot on the Canadian border. Here, Caesar and the Colonel match wits and emotions as each is forced to confront their very beings in a series of scenes that rank as some of the best acted moments I’ve seen all year. And one of them isn’t even truly onscreen.

I would be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge the fact that a fourth film is being prepped by 20th Century Fox. However, I feel Planet of the Apes would be better served if the franchise stopped here for now. Pretty much every loose end has been tied, and the story has already come full circle, leaving a straight remake of the original film as the only way forward. And when it comes down to it, there isn’t much point in doing so. The Apes Origin Trilogy, having begun as a nature-fights-back franchise before evolving into an uncompromising and devastating meditation on the self-destructive nature of human civilization, is over in my eyes, with its final note as beautiful as it can possibly be.

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REVIEW: Shin Godzilla (2016)

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Directed by Hideaki Anno and Shinji Higuchi
Written by Hideaki Anno
Starring Hiroki Hasegawa, Yutaka Takenouchi, Satomi Ishihara, Ren Osugi (get accent mark), Akira Emoto, Kengo Kora (accent), Mikako Ichikawa, Jun Kunimura, Pierre Taki

With the success of Legendary Pictures’ Americanized reboot of Godzilla, Toho back in Japan wanted to get back into the action. While still retaining the rights deal with Warner Brothers, allowing the Monsterverse to continue, Toho set about producing a new film to be directed by Hideaki Anno, the famous creator of Neon Genesis Evangelion. If you’re a fan, than you are probably assuming right now that Godzilla goes all metaphysical, right? Eh, not quite.

An unknown accident occurs in Tokyo Bay’s Aqua Line, flooding the underwater passageway as citizens scramble to evacuate. An emergency cabinet meeting is assembled, just in time to witness a giant creature surface from Tokyo Bay and make its way across land in the heart of the city. Growing in size and mutating with each unsuccessful attack against it, the creature seems unstoppable. Government official Rando Yaguchi (Hiroki Hasegawa) is placed in charge of a special research team to investigate ways to kill or incapacitate the beast, now dubbed “Godzilla.”

More than several kaiju and tokusatsu films have tried to establish a realistic scenario for the appearance of a giant monster; the original Godzilla and the Heisei era films The Return of Godzilla and Godzilla vs. Biollante presented the effect of the titular kaiju upon various geopolitical aspects of the world, while “foreign” monster films like the British Gorgo and Korean The Host carried an air of authenticity and spectacle to their visions of creature carnage. Shin Godzilla can easily be added to this fraternity, but its approach to the material is substantially more plausible and researched. Why? Because Shin Godzilla can be referred to as “Politicians vs. Godzilla.”

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The film begins with a brief mystery in the form of a deserted pleasure craft in Tokyo Bay before the water erupts in a large steam eruption, causing damage and flooding to the Tokyo Aqua Line highway. We as an audience are then treated to 13 minutes of dry bureaucracy. Yes, you read that right. As we are introduced to protagonist Rando Yaguchi, Deputy Cabinet Chief, we are also introduced to his world of relentless politics and red tape as Cabinet meeting after government committee after press conference seeks to establish just what is going on, and what to do about it. If this sounds incredibly boring, than I wouldn’t blame you, but I would rest easy–with the quick pace and sheer amount of subtitles you’ll be reading, I’m sure you won’t be too listless during your viewing.

Close viewing during this opening sequence will reward inquisitive viewers, however, as Anno’s intent quickly becomes apparent among every ignorant assumption and naive rush to judgment several government officials make, always rewarded with a simple, fast cut to a harsh reality check in the form of the giant monster now wading out of the bay and into metropolitan Tokyo. Again and again, even with the best of intentions, Japan’s flat-level democratic government, following the exact letter of the law, fails against the nuclear menace, resulting in one of the most salient and darkly humorous satires of government around today.

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But this is a Godzilla movie, you shout, and I soothe and calm with my analysis of the character, as this Godzilla is probably the most unique iteration on screen. First appearing quite alien to previous versions in the form of a bizarre, fish-eyed, bleeding-gilled monstrosity that can barely support its own week, it soon begins to mutate, revealing the most innovative addition to the Godzilla mythos: this Godzilla is highly adaptive, capable of mutating its body and DNA at will. Resulting in a changing creature that forms the most hideous Godzilla design yet, this film hits a home run in devising a new spin on the Big G.

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Further building on the design is co-director and special effects artist Shinji Higuchi’s work in creating Godzilla, this time done almost completely with CG effects. A clear break from tokusatsu tradition, to be sure, but the end result is incredibly convincing, due to the effects team’s efforts to keep Godzilla as stiff and suit-like as possible, which ironically gave the design a lifelike quality that accurately conveyed size and power. Their finest work probably comes at the halfway point in the film when Godzilla is bombed by American B-2 bombers, enraging the beast and prompting his first use of his destructive atomic beam.

Most of these scenes are accompanied by an equally-unusual sound design, employing a mixture of classical Toho sound effects and Akira Ifukube music with new sounds and music cues. When I first saw the film in theaters during its short American run, I was unimpressed and even bothered by the use of the old sounds and music, feeling that their limited dynamics were out of place. Now I’m convinced it was the fault of the cinema’s speaker system, as the blu-ray’s uncommon 3.1 mix produces a deep fidelity and bass I do not recall encountering before. In short, Shin Godzilla should highly please fans of the classic films with regards to their ears.

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After the mounting destruction of the first half, Godzilla falls into a long hibernation, and Rando’s research team reforms to discover a way to defeat him before a UN coalition employs nuclear weapons to resolve the situation. After systematically deconstructing the helplessness of Japan’s democracy to handle the crisis, Anno’s film then abruptly turns about face, giving Rando and his nerds the reigns to save the day with democracy. They bend only the rules they cannot follow to the letter, and break none, showing that even below the layers upon layers of tape, the right men and women with the right combination of ambition, compassion, and courage can prevail and make this world a better one.

Now I know that sounds very different from what is expected from a serious Godzilla movie, but fret not–the final scene brings one final revelation, one I won’t reveal here. Let’s just say that Godzilla’s origins as Nature’s reaction to the ravages of the human race are preserved in full with this film, and while Shin Godzilla requires an open mind and a quick eye for subtitles, to the right viewer, it is a real gem of modern tokusatsu. With Shin Godzilla, Anno has shown what humans can be capable of when working together toward a noble goal…but nature is patient, and she never forgets our crimes.