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Movie Review: War for the Planet of the Apes

The third and final picture in Fox’s latest Planet of the Apes franchise, War for the Planet of the Apes, is a stinker. So much was expected by this fan of the first two films―I also enjoyed Fox’s original 1968-1973 quintet, which I repeatedly saw as a boy in theaters and on TV and video―and so little is delivered from filmmakers, including co-writer and director Matt Reeves. The flat movie fails to engage at every level, starting with characters. But the main problem with War for the Planet of the Apes is a lack of plot, conflict and war. It’s rote and there’s not much at stake.

Consider that the trilogy’s leading character, the chimpanzee Caesar, played by Andy Serkis, who is sufficiently expressive in computer generated or performance capture mode, loses his wife and child early in the plot. This ought to be either devastating or formative or both. But it’s not. This is because the audience is not invested in the murdered characters. Accordingly, the pivotal plot point’s impact is limited. Without proper exposition, the whole plot feels strangely uninvolving. You know you’re supposed to empathize with Caesar, the voice of reason in the series, but it only goes so deep and, with the loss mitigated by lack of development―wife and son screen time goes by in a few blinks―you don’t get absorbed into the rest of the film. No abundance of CG tears and facial expressions can make this crucial event and its aftermath matter.

Caesar’s loss needs to matter very much, too, because it ostensibly serves as the catalyst for major change in his character. Without saying too much, Caesar is haunted by the deaths and rightly moved to seek justice. This entails hunting, tracking and defeating those responsible for the attack, ape and human alike. Quickly deciding that he must do this alone, and leaving his surviving son Cornelius with the tribe, Caesar goes off in search of hostile apes and humans, led by Woody Harrelson (Wilson), essentially and unfortunately playing Woody Harrelson in one of the most hollow performances of his career. What could have been a catalyst for introspection into Caesar’s failed or flawed leadership—really, after 15 years, Caesar still fails to gauge dissent and detect betrayal and hostile threats?—turns into an overly sentimental trek that exists primarily to create and chew scenery, overplay Michael Giacchino‘s sugary score and borrow too heavily and obviously from James Cameron’s Aliens.

Not that the first two films, 2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes and 2014’s Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, didn’t move the audience to emotion and even get cute here and there. Yet the first two movies, made by the same studio and filmmakers, also provoke thought, which War for the Planet of the Apes does not. At every plot turn, from Harrelson’s sadistic military colonel running an ape slave camp with goosestepping troops one minute and with lousy patrols, training and cohesion the next to a human child wandering into harm’s way as if her entirely war-ravaged, traumatic life had never happened, the jaw drops at the unrealism of the whole, ridiculous thing. During my theatrical showing, one couple started laughing and walked out. At first, I thought they were jumping the gun, so to speak. In subsequent scene after scene of preposterous plot action, I understood what drove them out. Effects are not enough to satisfy an intelligent audience. Recreating tears with skill, ability and precision does not substitute for plot, character and theme.

On this point, War for the Planet of the Apes‘ theme is lame. Aside from being predictable, and every major development lacks imagination, the meaning of the movie is safe, tame and purely serves the status quo. Its Judeo-Christianity—the movie proposes that to forgive everyone, including the mass murdering tyrant, is divine—contradicts its righteous bloodlust, which apparently on the movie’s terms is morally acceptable if judging one’s identity solely by one’s species. That might not matter, or it might matter less, if War for the Planet of the Apes, which I opted for over comic book-based movies (which I wasn’t in the mood to see), had been entertaining. A zoo chimp adds nothing and might even be mildly annoying. It’s a mystery why filmmakers dispensed with clever references to the original series, such as Maurice’s name (Maurice is the best thing about War for the Planet of the Apes), which would have made this movie tolerable. Naming a character after a car and Forbidden Zone-type scarecrows do not count as clever; they come off as add-ons.

Instead, this curious departure from superior previous entries is puzzling, plodding—with long, boring stretches without action—and, because it overplays its contradictory themes, pretentious. I can’t begin to count gaping plot holes but let me point out that mortal wounds probably take their toll before days-long treks across deserts, mountain ranges and promised lands. A movie called War for the Planet of the Apes ought to at least have a strong sense of conflict. War for the Planet of the Apes does not. Like its number of references to the first movie, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, which is zero—Caesar apparently has no interest in reflecting on his life in whole—ape leader Caesar’s climax comes to a low, flat and empty end.

Movie Review: Gunga Din (1939)

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One of the greatest war movies and another reason besides Gone with the Wind and The Wizard of Oz why 1939 is a legendary year in motion pictures, Gunga Din, played at Sid Grauman’s Egyptian Theater for TCM’s Classic Film Festival. It was introduced by Oscar winners Ben Burtt (Lincoln, Star Trek, Super 8) and Craig Barron (Hugo, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Captain America, Terminator: Salvation) in cooperation with the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

Though TCM tagged Gunga Din incorrectly as an adventure film, this unusually moving and humorous adaptation of Rudyard Kipling’s epic poem of the same name is a character-driven story of friendship which ultimately, like American Sniper, depicts man at war, dramatizing what makes a man’s character. Originally assigned to director Howard Hawks (Red River, Rio Bravo, The Thing), it is directed by the great George Stevens (Shane, Giant, A Place in the Sun). Written for the screen by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, the action pits three smart aleck British soldiers (Cary Grant, Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and Victor McLaglen), accompanied by a loyal Indian waterboy (Sam Jaffe), to fight barbaric religious fundamentalists in northern India.

The result is both light and gripping. The RKO studio’s special effects department, as Burtt and Barron pointed out while wearing pith helmets and providing drone-based footage of the Lone Pine, California location where Gunga Din was filmed, were ingeniously exploited to replicate the Khyber Pass. Shot near the Golden State’s Mount Whitney and Lake Sherwood in Ventura County during a 10-week schedule, the plot’s hard core is serviced by crackling, witty lines delivered by the picture’s masculine leading men. 

Gunga Din forewarns with its opening shot of a vulture and before long the colonial soldiers are venturing into a village where they are besieged by vicious natives. Amid the wisecracking, Cary Grant’s character kills with his bare hands and, for this picture’s jaunty reputation, its subtext of life and death is always on display. This is what drives Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. who still elicits swoons in a packed movie palace audience, to heed his fiancee’s (Joan Fontaine) pleas to exit military service and get on with his life. His character’s imminent departure just as one of the British army trio falls into the belly of the beast with a diabolical Indian guru raises the stakes of the plot from the tension of shifting camaraderie in banter to the very essence of heroism in action.

As one of the men puts it in one of many great lines, referencing by implication that each soldier labors, marches and fights only in order to live for his own pursuits, “I’m a man first.” This is a short but winning sentence; a harsh, firm and swift rejection of the halfway, the approximate, the not-quite, which is everywhere in today’s approach to war (dramatized in American Sniper). That blistering line, which I’m glad to say drew applause, propels the powerful, and most meaningful, portions of Gunga Din.

The nature of the enemy is, in one of their own’s words, that of an “ugly little savage” complete with beheadings and the idea that they kill for the sake of the kill. As the waterboy acts to gain and keep a more noble status, as in Kipling’s poem, with the Western invaders in peril, Cary Grant as he is rarely seen states the film’s raw and truthful theme: “Here we are and this is it.” I haven’t experienced such rapt war movie silence in a movie theater—and the Egyptian was filled to its 600-plus capacity—since I saw grown men reduced to sniffles in American Sniper.

When distant bagpipes sound as the mystics of muscle slither, pull up and cower to ensnare the Brits, in skillful moviemaking which ranks with Zulu, Battle of the Bulge and other great war scenes, something extraordinary, genuinely extraordinary, happens which forever sears into the heart and melds into the beat of the drum corps, like a heartbeat so strong that it seems to keep on beating after it stops. Referencing Hannibal, Caesar, Napoleon and Alexander the Great, Gunga Din combines every line of writing, direction of drama and special effect into a moment of glory. Final scenes, like the soldier’s last breaths, with tears depicting man at his best, for a change, wrest from one’s enjoyment of humor the wisdom which lies within an act of bravery. Gunga Din is an awesome, honest and breathtaking portrayal of one great man’s glory at war.

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