WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES

***1/2

Woody Harrelson – a great American screen actor – obviously has a bee in his bonnet about wishing he’d played Colonel Kurtz in Apocalypse Now. In The Duel (2016) he applied smatterings of cool water to his bald pate a la Brando as he portrayed The Preacher, a philosophical sociopath and the cult leader of a small town in the American West. Now, in the third of this round of movies in the official Planet of the Apes universe (which includes the original series that began in 1968 but which excludes Tim Burton’s 2001 misfire), Harrelson again pays homage to Brando’s Kurtz many times as the cult leader of a squad of American soldiers out to rid our planet… of the apes.

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Brando.

Indeed, there are so many references to Kurtz and Apocalypse Now (including graffiti at the soldier’s camp that says “Ape-Pocalypse Now”!) that you have to wonder where homage ends and rip-off begins. This is an excellent movie, but the script has cribbed Coppola’s Vietnam masterpiece so blatantly that you wonder whether the filmmakers are simply assuming most of their audience are too young to have seen it.

Caesar the ape (Andy Serkis, excellent) takes on the Willard role, travelling “upriver” – or in this case, northerly from California towards Oregon – to assassinate the Colonel Kurtz-like “Colonel” (Harrelson). Along the way, he and his small band of comrades encounter ambushes, evidence of barbarity, and solidarity. When they finally arrive at The Colonel’s compound, they find apes lashed vertically to wooden crucifix-like structures, as Willard and his merry crew did, with humans, as they arrived at Kurtz’s. So, while the screenplay doesn’t credit Coppola – it should. (The story beats continue to ape Apocalypse Now but I won’t spoil).

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It’s kind of fascinating that this year’s Kong: Skull Island, which also featured apes (and also featured Terry Notary as an ape) was also directly and heavily influenced by Apocalypse Now. What is it with that film and apes? But whereas Kong: Skull Island was funny and fluffy (and brief), War For The Planet of the Apes is deadly earnest with an epic running time. It’s serious stuff, and works as such – indeed, one of its mis-steps is a comedic character, played by Steve Zahn, whose every moment derails the sombre tone jarringly.

It is this tone that is so refreshing. This is a big Hollywood studio product designed to make enormous pots of cash, but it is mournful, elegiac and takes its time. There are magnificent action set-pieces but the vast bulk of the running time is spent on character moments, many ape-to-ape.  The technology has become so freaking incredible that director Matt Reeves is able to shoot long dialogue scenes between Serkis and, for example, Maurice (Karin Konoval) in extreme close-up. And when there are big groups of apes (actually, the actual term is a shrewdness of apes – look it up) the effect is breath-taking.

At times, the film sags with its propensity towards ponderousness. Perhaps it takes itself a little too seriously. But, as a (possible) conclusion to this round of the storytelling, it can be forgiven for its epic aspirations. As a trilogy, this simian saga earns righteous holding next to the Lord of the Rings movies and the original three Star Wars films. And like with those trilogies, the second is the best, the first is the most fun, and the last is a long, noble conclusion.

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WILSON

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*** (out of five)

Let’s just take a moment to recognise how marvellous a screen actor Woody Harrelson is. He’s tremendous. He knows how to build an indelible character, how to spin a line, how to fill the screen. His technique is impeccable. And, like many of the best screen actors, there is something about him that is uniquely him. His slate of roles is fantastically diverse, but he also also brings the Woody. Tall and leading-man handsome yet totally capable of playing “character” parts, he’s part of a circle that – for me at least – includes thespians like Stanley Tucci, the late Phillip Seymour Hoffman, and Billy Bob Thornton.

All those actors would have had a great crack at Wilson, but Woody got it, and he makes it his own. An eventful, melancholic character study based on Daniel Clowes’ graphic novel (Clowes also wrote the screenplay), it offers a hearty meal for an actor and Woody happily feasts. He’s terrific, and would probably be in Awards conversations next year if the film weren’t so modest.

Wilson’s a curmudgeon, a recluse, and perhaps a little imbalanced. He lives with his beloved dog and as few electronic devices as possible in a house in need of a good clean. When his dad dies, it sends Wilson off on a journey that sees him connect with his ex-wife and the two of them with their grown-up daughter.

This is one of those graphic novel adaptations (like Clowes’ own 2001 Ghost World) that kind of lives in its own hermetic universe. Not to say that there are superheroes or aliens (there certainly aren’t either) but that the houses are all colourful (it was shot in Twin Cities, MN but seems to be set in the Pacific Northwest of the US), the people are all quirky and everything is a little timeless. It’s stylised, but in a vague way – you just kind of know it as you’re seeing it.

The film has many, many gags that fall flat, but there are also some true zingers. Harrelson and co-stars Laura Dern and Judy Greer are excellent. And the plot is truly, refreshingly loose and unformulaic, rambling from one situation to another like a dim puppy. It’s almost instantly forgettable, but it’s never not engaging as it plays.

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The Edge of Seventeen

 

 

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**** (out of five)

There’s a sub-genre of the high-school flick, and it’s the female teen in high-school flick, of which there are three acknowledged classics, Clueless (1995), Mean Girls (2004) and Juno (2007); other  good ones include Easy A (2010), Bring It On (2000) and, of course, Pretty in Pink (1986). Each of these films combined comedy and pathos, and each featured a standout performance by its leading actress, each of whom either went on to become huge stars (Easy A’s Emma Stone will probably win the Best Actress Oscar next month for La La Land) or chose not to.

The Edge of Seventeen can hold its head very high in this exalted company, and Hailee Steinfeld (True Grit, Begin Again) gives a performance that should allow her the kind of career promised to Lindsay Lohan and Ellen Page (indeed, Ellen Page’s performance in Juno is kind of a touchstone for Steinfeld’s here). A total home run as a first feature for writer/director/producer Kelly Fremon Craig, it’s consistently funny, moving and emotionally honest.

Nadine is 17; her dad died when she was 13 and there are plenty of leftover emotional scars. Things are okay because she’s got a loyal bestie and a calm and dependable older brother, but when those two hook up, she over-reacts and spins out of control.

Closer in tone to Easy A and Juno than the others – it’s rooted in realism, avoids cheap laughs and cheap sentiment, and isn’t flashy with its use of music, colour or costume – The Edge of Seventeen starts strongly and then keeps getting better and better, drawing you in deeper as you get to know Nadine more intimately. Steinfeld has excellent support from Kyra Sedgwick as mom, Blake Jenner as bro, and, most significantly, Woody Harrelson as one of Nadine’s teachers. Harrelson is superb; his performance feels effortless, but that’s only because he’s so damned good at this sort of character – a damaged charmer with compassion and integrity.

The plot isn’t revolutionary; in fact, nothing here is. You don’t see a movie like this hoping it will re-invent the wheel. It’s all about the execution and the performances, and The Edge of Seventeen excels with both. I saw it with a cinema full of, I suppose, its essential demographic, being teenage girls, and they loved it, laughing throughout and fully engaged. I was right there with them.