“This is a holy war … it will become a planet of apes, and we will become your cattle.”
– The Colonel (Woody Harrelson) to ape leader Caesar (Andy Serkis) in War for the Planet of the Apes
“When fascism comes to America it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying a cross.”
– Sinclair Lewis
Beginning with Rise of the Planet of the Apes in 2011 and continuing with Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014), 20th Century Fox effectively rebooted the campy Charlton Heston 60s film series as the thinking person’s summer popcorn franchise – the kind of smart fare which fulfills the original aim of early science fiction writers to craft instructive, cautionary allegories against humanity’s baser nature. The prequel trilogy comes to a powerful and timely close with this summer’s War for the Planet of the Apes, wherein Caesar and his band of highly evolved simians take their final stand against a rapidly devolving humankind.
Andy Serkis returns via motion capture performance as the sensitive and haunted ape leader Caesar. It is an absolute crime that the Motion Picture Academy has not had the wisdom to honor his work somehow. His Caesar is more fully realized, more affecting that about 90% of the flesh-and-blood performances we see in most Hollywood blockbusters. C’est la vie.
[Image source: Wikipedia]
Facing Serkis’ Caesar and delivering one of the best, most nuanced performances of his career is Woody Harrelson as the Heart of Darkness-inspired “Colonel,” a demagogue whose preoccupation with humanity’s impending obsolescence has led him to twist evangelical faith and jingoistic patriotism into a toxic stew of runaway fascism and military brutality. Oh, and he wants to enslave Caesar’s apes to build a big wall. Um, yeah.
(At one point, one of Caesar’s ape followers asks earnestly, “Why do they need a wall?” It gets a knowingly uncomfortable laugh from the audience, and there is a deliciously ironic plot point that hinges upon said wall which I dare not spoil.)
Believe it or not, the film is more subtle than what I’ve described might lead you to believe, and returning director Matt Reeves, working from a script co-written with Mark Bomback, refuses to supply the audience easy answers or melodramatic villains to boo and hiss. Caesar admittedly walks a higher ground, hoping to avoid bloodshed but realizing that pacifism will be impossible in the face of a humankind that fears what it does not understand and responds to its loss of privilege and hegemony with blind rage.
The Colonel, on the other hand, witnesses his family and friends literally losing their powers of cognition and speech, sliding into oblivion as a result of the “simian flu” that wiped most of humanity off the globe in the prior film. His hate-filled futility is as heartbreaking as it is maddening, as relatable as it is horrifying. He loses his own humanity in pursuit of preserving Humanity writ large: he is a man who sees empathy as a tactical flaw and who thinks there is no worse insult than “so emotional” (which ironically he hurls repeatedly at Caesar, a “damn dirty ape”). Kudos to the filmmakers and to Harrelson for the bravery of this depiction.
[Image source: Wikipedia]
As atmospheric and philosophical as the film is, however, it is still a movie about talking monkeys after all and, as such, remains crackling entertainment.
Steve Zahn is a welcome new addition as “Bad Ape,” a skittish but wise chimp whose survival instincts lead Caesar both straight into danger and then right back out of it. Any comic relief in the picture – there ain’t much – comes from Zahn, one of Hollywood’s most underrated players, as a Yoda-esque hermit who would prefer to hide in the ruins and survive off mankind’s detritus. It’s a warm, soulful, and funny performance, and another that I wish could be remembered open-mindedly at Oscar time.
Whether you struggle with a societal hierarchy that blithely deems mankind the highest rung of the evolutionary ladder or with a world wherein aggressive self-preservation too often seems the only order of the day, you will find resonant themes in these 21st century Planet of the Apes films. Yes, they are summer escapist fare but they are also disturbingly prescient, and, if we want them to remain “escapist fare,” we should probably all change our ways posthaste.
[Image source: Wikipedia]
Reel Roy Reviews is now TWO books! You can purchase your copies by clicking here (print and digital).
Nina Kaur (thanks to fellow Farmington PlayerAmy Lauter for connecting us!) asked me to contribute a guest blog entry to her fun and interesting blog Thirty Something Years in Ninaland. Here’s what she wrote about me – “Every Monday I will have a guest blogger. Today I am featuring a wonderful Movie Reviewer named Roy Sexton. He is witty, charming and great critic! Enjoy reading about his journey!” Wow! Thanks, Nina! Click here for the original post on her blog.
By yours truly …
Movies have always been an important part of my life.
I like to read books (more accurately comic books these days, as I seem to now have the attention span of a tsetse fly), and I adore music. Television is fine, and I’ve spent many hours traipsing the boards of theatres across the Midwest. But movies transport me.
I love the fact that a film is an encapsulated medium. Whether 90 minutes or three hours, a movie tells one story – beginning, middle, and end – introducing you to new friends and enemies and locales in an efficiently designed delivery mechanism. With a good film, you get the experience of reading a novel (whether or not the film is in fact based on any work of literature) in a highly compressed fashion.
Your brain leaves your body for a bit, you take a mini-vacation to places you might not otherwise ever see, and you return to your regularly scheduled life a bit changed, perhaps enlightened, and hopefully re-energized.
I stop reading email, answering calls, or monitoring social media…and just blessedly check out…for a bit.
My parents cultivated appreciation for the arts by filling our home with movies and music and books and love. I’ve groused in the past about wanting, as a child, to play with my Star Wars action figures in the solitude of my toy-lined room and being forced instead to sit in our den with my parents and watch some creaky B&W classic movie on Fort Wayne’s Channel 55. And I am so grateful now for that.
My appreciation for classic cinema resulted from these years basking in the glow of our old RCA color TV. And when we could finally afford a VCR and could now watch any movie of our choosing, I was already hooked on the story-telling of vintage movies with their requisite arch wit, dramatic stakes, whimsical joys, and belief that anything was possible.
However, not everything was high art in our house. The advent of HBO in the early 80s and its repetitive showings of whatever junk Hollywood had most recently cranked out shaped my tastes for better or worse as well. I’m a sucker for the movie train wreck – the more star-studded, over-budget, under-written, and garish the better. Some of my most beloved films are among the most notoriously awful of all time: Xanadu, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, The Wiz, Popeye, Flash Gordon. The Black Hole, Raggedy Ann and Andy’s Musical Adventure, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, Return to Oz, Battle Beyond the Stars, Krull, The Neverending Story, and so on.
If it was a flop and it was shown ad nauseum one mid-afternoon following another on HBO in the 1980s, then I fell in love with it. Like self-imposed water torture on my nascent aesthetic.
As time went by and I stomped through my high school and college know-it-all years (some might argue I’m still stuck in them), I learned from both my parents and some wonderful teachers the tools of critique and criticism. What is the intent of the piece? What is the context for its creation? How effective is its structure, composition, impact? Where did it go awry or where did it cross over into something classic?
It’s all highly subjective and a bit arrogant, I suppose, but I can’t help it. I’m entertained by the act of analysis.
In more recent years, Facebook gave me an outlet to connect with my inner-Ebert. I started posting status statements summarizing in glib, condensed fashion my take on whatever flick we had just enjoyed … or endured. My kind-hearted and patient partner John has suffered through a lot of movies over the years, many he enjoyed … and even more he did not.
At wonderful Jim and Lyn’s beautiful wedding
We still bicker about his departure from Moulin Rouge after twenty minutes with nary an explanation. I found him after the movie in the lobby reading a newspaper – I don’t know what is more telling: that he was too kind to want to ruin the movie for me by alerting me how much he hated it, or the fact that I stayed to the end without checking on his safety and security!
My friends and colleagues enjoyed these little “squibs” I posted on social media. I suppose I was aspiring to capture the grace and insight of Leonard Maltin’s “micro reviews” that I consumed voraciously as a child every January when we bought his latest edition. (The paper on those early volumes was always of some strange newspaper-esque stock prone to smudging and was pulpily aromatic. I will never forget that musty, fabulous smell.)
John always asks plaintively, “Didn’t they know this movie was bad when they were making it?!”
Perhaps I keep trying to solve that riddle, with the false confidence that my $10 movie ticket entitles me to a shot at armchair quarterbacking. Perhaps the failed actor in me is still trying to reclaim some artistic glory. Or perhaps I’m just a wise-ass with too many opinions and without the good sense to keep them respectfully to myself.
My pals told me, “Set up a blog. Capture these Facebook reviews for future reference. They’re great; they’re fun! Blah blah blah.” I have to admit that eventually my ego got the better of me, and, one late night, I explored the wonders that WordPress holds (albeit not that many) and set up ReelRoyReviews as a diary of sorts, detailing my adventures in the cinema.
Here’s the funny thing. Nobody read them. Nobody. At least for quite a while.
Well, that’s not entirely true. My mom was an avid reader and supporter and was always the first to offer an encouraging comment: “My son writes the best reviews and everyone should love them.” So there!
But you know what? Something interesting happened along the way. I stopped caring and just started writing for myself. And I started having fun. And people started reading.
Life is way too short (and exasperating) to get too intense about entertainment, so I try to take a light and conversational approach with my reviews. And I try to respect that (for the most part) these are show business professionals putting (ideally) their best feet forward and that they are human beings with hearts and souls and feelings. I hope I never seem cruel. I don’t mean to be. These writings are off-the-cuff and journal-style and come from as positive a place as I can muster.
Approach everything and everyone honestly and with positive intent and offer candid feedback with an open heart and as much kindness as possible.
Please check out my latest reviews here … Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, Transformers: Age of Extinction, Edge of Tomorrow, 22 Jump Street, The Fault in our Stars, and Tammy and more …
“Progress, far from consisting in change, depends on retentiveness. When change is absolute there remains no being to improve and no direction is set for possible improvement: and when experience is not retained, as among savages, infancy is perpetual. Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
This quote seems apropos, strangely enough, for the latest summer blockbuster to come down the pike: Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, a somber, sociopolitically murky take on the “man vs. monkey” classic sci-fi mythology rebooted in 2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes.
Rise gave us a poignant tale of one man’s (James Franco) heartfelt connection with his evolutionary forebear (the chimp Caesar) as he searched for a cure for his ailing father’s (John Lithhow) Alzheimer’s. That film dealt with themes of a medical research industry that has little regard for nature (or for any of us, for that matter) and of the inevitably that man’s own hubris will lead to our destruction at the hands of the ecology with which we endlessly tamper.
The plot of Dawn is a logical continuation of the Pandora’s Box opened in that earlier film where primates who had been subject to cruel experimentation exact their revenge. Dawn is set ten years after Rise and depicts a society where humans have been decimated by a virus unleashed through the same experiments that gave the primates their super intelligence.
On the outskirts of San Francisco, Caesar and his followers reside in a commune that resembles something across between Return of the Jedi‘s Ewok village and a guerrilla (sorry) warrior encampment. On the other side of the Golden Gate Bridge, a small band of not-scruffy-looking-enough humans are barely hanging on, living in what looks to be the Presidio, retrofitted as a refugee camp.
Things start to go sideways when a small party of humans led by ape-sympathizers Keri Russell (The Americans) and Jason Clarke (Zero Dark Thirty) set off into the simian-occupied forest to jump-start a dam that could provide much-needed electricity to all. This sets off a chain of events wherein the primates, justifiably mistrustful of humanity but led by Caesar who still has a James Franco-sized hole in his heart, decide to help the humans but are then betrayed by man and fellow ape simultaneously.
Gary Oldman, who has demonstrated that he is a jackass in real life, fortunately plays one on screen here as well. While Russell and Clarke are in the woods, he is actively stockpiling weapons to use against Caesar and his brood. As you might predict from the previews (and even the film’s poster) the apes discover the weaponry and make plenty good use of it against the humans.
Caesar finds himself on the wrong end of a monkey-sized coup (shades of Orwell’s Animal Farm), and the remainder of the film is spent with the audience wondering who will take charge of the chaos. I won’t spoil the ending, but the film resolves itself in a way that will satisfy both fans of the original series and those unfamiliar with the earlier films.
Directed pretty solidly by Matt Reeves (Cloverfield, Let Me In), the movie is too long by 20 minutes and suffers a bit for having none of the sweetness of its predecessor. Given this installment’s subject matter and the progression the overall narrative ultimately has to make toward Mr. Posturing Charlton Heston showing up one day in a rocket-ship to see the Statue of Liberty in pieces and to exclaim “damn dirty ape!”, the darker tone is understandable.
Clarke and Russell are adequate as the soulful scientists who see themselves and their people darkly reflected in the increasingly contentious simian society, but Oldman is a hammy mess with a sloppily written character – like he’s recycling his Commissioner Gordon portrayal by way of Rod Steiger … on a really sweaty bad day.
There is a thematic density to the script that occasionally overpowers the popcorn fun with social commentary pretensions – a la The Dark Knight Rises. However, the implications for our present-day life are interesting and thorny: what devastating impact unfettered access to guns and ammo and other firepower can have on a society caught up in simple-minded bloodlust; how quickly our sophisticated human systems, processes, and other governance can slide right off the rails when faced with epic crisis; and who or what is really the dominant species on this planet when the chips are finally down.
The true star of the film is Andy Serkis with his motion capture performance as Caesar. His haunted eyes and physicality convey the pointed sadness of a leader watching his new society devolve into all the ugly excesses of the prior one – try as they might, the simian utopia can’t escape the ugly brutality they learned from their years subjugated by human “civilization.”