Movie reviews: 'War for the Planet of the Apes' beats expectations
Published Friday, July 14, 2017 5:50AM EDT
WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES: 4 ½ STARS
The latest “Planet of the Apes” movie has all the earmarks of what is wrong in Hollywood. It’s one of those dreaded hyphenate reboot-prequel movies, there’s a child sidekick and more than half the characters are computer generated. That should be three strikes you’re out, but “War for the Planet of the Apes” transcends all that monkey business as an expertly made popcorn flick.
The story picks up two years after “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” and brings us one step closer to the events of the very first “Apes” film from 1968. Human civilization has crumbled after a simian-flu wiped out most of humanity while empowering the apes. The primates, led by aging hero ape Caesar (Andy Serkis), have created a comfortable forest world for themselves along the California/Oregon border.
It’s a peaceful place until a human commando team, under the orders of a ruthless Colonel Kurtzian leader named McCullough (Woody Harrelson), stage a brutal raid. "We must abandon our humanity to save humanity," he says. Instead of Born to Kill written on their helmets these soldiers have slogans like Bedtime for Bonzo emblazoned up top.
Later, when McCullough kills Cesar’s wife and son he seeks out the Colonel. His search for revenge leads him to an ape prison camp, kick-starting the film’s “Ape-pocalypse Now” section. It’s guerrilla warfare, but this time it’s personal.
“If we lose,” McCullough says, “it will be a planet of apes.” Duh. Isn’t that kind of the point of these movies?
“War for the Planet of the Apes” is a summer tentpole movie that fits into the franchise but can be enjoyed as a standalone. Director Matt Reeves creates exciting action sequences but there's more to the movie event explosions and gunfire. A brief recap brings us up to speed, then we’re thrown into the world. Cesar wants to be left alone but the murder of his family ignites within him complex, contradictory emotions, the desire to protect his ape herd while getting revenge. Those feelings are the engine that drives the movie but they are wrapped around a blockbuster that doesn't feel like a blockbuster. It's quiet -- most of the apes speak in sign language -- with a philosophical edge not usually found in big summer releases.
Much of that is due to a brilliant MoCap performance from Andy Serkis. In a genre not known for subtlety, he brings a range of emotion to Cesar. Selfless, melancholic and compassionate, his take on the ape character is layered and made all the more remarkable given the computer generated process that goes into creating it.
Serkis is aided by Karin Konoval as orangutan Maurice, who conveys complex emotions with little to no dialogue. Less welcome, although not fatal, is Steve Zahn’s Jar Jar Binks-esque Bad Ape. He’s the film’s comic relief, but his goofy gags and slapstick often feel slightly out of place in a movie that is otherwise concerned with classic themes like fear of the other and revenge.
Like all good speculative fiction, “War for the Planet of the Apes” isn’t just a movie about the wild idea of apes vs. humans. With deeply rooted ideas about the nature of compassion and community, it also contains timely ideas for a troubled world. In one tense scene child sidekick Nova (Amiah Miller) risks everything to bring food and water to Cesar, subtly suggesting that even in the darkest times kindness can still exist. It’s a rare movie, an intimate epic brimming with food for thought while simultaneously satisfying the need to watch apes on horseback.
MERMAIDS: 3 ½ STARS
“Mermaids,” a new documentary from Toronto filmmaker Ali Weinstein, isn’t a historical look at marine folklore or the history of the Starbucks logo. Stories of the underwater half-fish, half-human beings luring sailors to their death have been written for centuries, but Weinstein takes a humanist approach, deep diving into the lives of people living the mermaid fantasy.
In 75 minutes the film introduces us to women for whom the wearing of a prosthetic tail is a transformative act. There’s Cookie De Jesus, an incest survivor (whose husband tailors her tails) whose love of dressing as a mermaid helped her overcome feelings of worthlessness. We meet Rachel, half of a mother-daughter mermaid team, a handful of the famed Weeki Wachee mermaids of Spring Hill, Florida, and Julz, a transgender woman who found acceptance in the mermaid community.
Weinstein lets the women do the talking here, presenting slices of their lives. The thing that binds them is the inclusive and empowering nature of the mermaid world. “All tails are welcome here,” says one woman.
“Mermaids” doesn’t delve much deeper than that, but it’s an intriguing and positive snapshot of a subculture. Visually, Weinstein keeps things interesting with beautiful underwater cinematography, but the film’s strength is its message. “You’re half fish and half human,” says one mermaid, “and I think the best of both.”
THE LITTLE HOURS: 2 ½ STARS
Take “The Decameron,” a collection of novellas by the 14th-century Italian author Giovanni Boccaccio, add in “Mean Girls,” and you have “The Little Hours.” Set at the time of the Black Death, director Jeff Baena has made a quirky comedy with an all-star comedy cast including Alison Brie, Dave Franco, Aubrey Plaza, John C. Reilly and Molly Shannon, period costumes and dialogue that would not be out of place in a raunchy, modern-day teen comedy.
The spoiled Alessandra (Brie), eye-rolling Fernanda (Plaza), and befuddled Ginevra (Micucci) are medieval nuns, bored out of their minds at the convent. They spend the day doing chores, stealing bottles of communion wine and having impure thoughts.
When Massetto (Dave Franco), a young servant forced to flee home after he was caught sleeping with his Lord’s (Nick Offerman) wife (Lauren Weedman), arrives at the convent, he provides a release for the pent-up repression. Cue bawdy wickedness and even a satanic ritual or two.
Like the period “Carry On” movies, in “The Little Hours” the genre is the joke. Baena mines some outrageous moments by casting Brie, Plaza and Micucci as repressed nuns, but the humour primarily comes from the situation, not the script. In other words, like many of the “Carry On” movies, the idea is funnier than the actual script.
“The Little Hours” is a movie with “mischief in its heart.” Its satire is so broad it doesn’t aim to offend. Instead, it revels in its irreverence, relying on its cast -- particularly the trio of nasty nuns and John C. Reilly as Father Tommasso -- to find whatever humour is hidden in this audacious material.