FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #116 – “Crown Heights” (dir. Matt Ruskin)

Poster for "Crown Heights"

In this week’s podcast, Glenn and Daniel take in a tale of justice for a man wrongly convicted that greatly exceeded their expectations – both in storytelling, and in the acting prowess of former NFL star Nnamdi Asomugha – a set of words that we never expected to say aloud (39:12).

May contain NSFW language.

FilmWonk rating: 7 out of 10

Show notes:

  • Music for this episode is the tracks “The Message” by Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, and “River” by Leon Bridges, from the film’s soundtrack.
  • You can check out the episode of This American Life that the film was based on here.
  • You just got Nnamdi’d.
  • We correctly summarized the current legal state of Adnan Syed‘s case – as of this writing, he is still in prison, awaiting a new trial that was ordered back in July 2016, and was denied bail back in December.
  • CORRECTION: We referred to Colin being sentenced for murder despite not being ID’d as the shooter as a form of legal fiction – this was intended to be a reference to the felony murder rule (which is either a form of legal fiction or strict liability depending on your perspective), but it’s not really applicable to this case, as Warner was not convicted under this rule – he was wrongly convicted on a standard second-degree murder charge.
  • The New York State Board of Parole is indeed composed of political appointees – up to 19 members appointed by the Governor and approved by the State Senate for a six-year term. Each parole hearing is overseen by a panel of 2-3 members.

Listen above, or download: Crown Heights (right-click, save as, or click/tap to play on a non-flash browser)

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FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #115 – “Patti Cake$” (dir. Geremy Jasper), “The Trip to Spain” (dir. Michael Winterbottom)

Poster for "Patti Cake$"

In this week’s podcast, Glenn and Daniel refer to The Trip to Spain as “Entourage-lite”, in what is inexplicably a positive review, as Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon take in their third pastoral outing of visual, culinary, and improvised comedic indulgence. And then they check out Patti Cake$, the most delightful and original coming-of-age tale we’ve seen since Dope, featuring an unlikely hero (Danielle Macdonald) and her gang of misfits trying to make it in the New Jersey rap scene. This was a fun week. Join us for it! (29:51)

May contain NSFW language.

Still from "The Trip to Spain"

FilmWonk rating (The Trip to Spain): 6 out of 10
FilmWonk rating (Patti Cake$): 8 out of 10

Show notes:

  • [00:36] Review: The Trip to Spain
  • [10:53] Review: Patti Cake$
  • Music for this episode is the track, “PBNJ” and “Tuff Love“, as performed by the cast of Patti Cake$.
  • Seriously, I know none of you saw Philomena. And it is quite good. Check it out before it leaves Netflix this month.

Listen above, or download: Patti Cake$, The Trip to Spain (right-click, save as, or click/tap to play on a non-flash browser)

FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #114 – “Wind River” (dir. Taylor Sheridan), “Sicario” (dir. Denis Villeneuve)

In this week’s podcast, Glenn and Daniel a contentious ride into Taylor Sheridan‘s directorial debut (Update: nope!), Wind River, as well as a trip down memory lane in Sheridan’s prior filmography, including Denis Villeneuve outstanding 2015 drug war drama,
Sicario (43:01).

May contain NSFW language.

FilmWonk rating (Sicario): 8 out of 10
FilmWonk rating (Wind River): 6.5/10 (Glenn), 3/10 (Daniel)

Show notes:

  • [00:33] Review: Sicario
  • [08:23] Review: Wind River
  • [24:00] Spoilers: Wind River
  • Music for this episode is the track, “Convoy“, from the Sicario score by Jóhann Jóhannsson, and the track, “Bad News“, from the Wind River score by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis.
  • CORRECTION: In our discussion of Sicario, we referred to a report from a few months ago by the International Institute for Strategic Studies that named the Mexican drug war the second-deadliest conflict in the world in 2016. The Institute has since cited a methodological flaw in this calculation, and issued a retraction, although they still expect the conflict to be in the top ten. The Mexican government released its own response as well.
  • As out-of-touch, big city film critics, we were admittedly rather ignorant if an agency of US Fish and Wildlife Services existed to cull predator species. The answer is emphatically yes – it’s called…Wildlife Services. Its deeds are outlined in this NatGeo article:

    “Since 2000, the agency has killed at least two million mammals and 15 million birds. Although it’s main focus is predator control in the West, Wildlife Services also does things like bird control nationwide at airports to prevent crashes and feral pig control in the South.”

  • We referred to a Kroll Show sketch called “Dead Girl Town“. Click and enjoy.
  • Graham Greene wasn’t on Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman, but he was in Dances With Wolves, in which he was nominated for an Academy Award.

Listen above, or download: Wind River, Sicario (right-click, save as, or click/tap to play on a non-flash browser)

Danny Boyle’s “Sunshine” (presented by 10 Years Ago: Films in Retrospective)

This review originally appeared as a guest post on 10 Years Ago: Films in Retrospective, a film site in which editor Marcus Gorman and various contributors revisit a movie on the week of its tenth anniversary. This retro review will be a bit more free-form, recappy, and profanity-laden than usual.

Our sun is dying. Mankind faces extinction. Seven years ago, the Icarus project sent a mission to restart the sun, but that mission was lost before it reached the star. Sixteen months ago, I, Robert Capa (Cillian Murphy), and a crew of seven, left Earth frozen in a solar winter.
Our payload: a stellar bomb with a mass equivalent to Manhattan Island.
Our purpose: to create a star within a star.
Eight astronauts strapped to the back of a bomb. My bomb.
Welcome to the Icarus II.

Opening voice-over is hit-or-miss with me, as are on-the-nose ship metaphors. Naming your solar rescue mission Icarus seems problematic, especially for a second attempt. I suppose we could’ve revived Apollo (a literal sun-god) for this, but the first Apollo mission…erm…died in a fire, so I guess there’d be trouble either way. In any case, it seems branding wasn’t a major priority – we don’t actually see much of Earth in this “solar winter”, but the planet seems to have unified, at least to the point of mining and transporting all of Earth’s fissile material (including, presumably, all of the nuclear weapons), so assuming Dr. Capa (Cillian Murphy)’s second attempt to save the dying sun manages to succeed, Earth might be a bit more peaceful than before. Or at least return to conventional warfare.

I first saw Sunshine in theaters on a friend’s recommendation. She assured me it was “two thirds character-based indie sci-fi, one third aggressive slasher flick”. This is largely accurate on its face – in fact, the movie has a handful of plot beats in common with Event Horizon, the Doctor Who episode “42”, and even Aliens if I’m playing a bit loose with it. “The first group went missing so now you have to complete their mission and grapple with the [unknown] problem they failed to solve” is a solid adventure trope, and imbuing it with world-ending stakes and psychological torment definitely sets this film up for success – that, plus its powerhouse cast. Besides Murphy, the crew includes Rose Byrne, Hiroyuki Sanada, Michelle Yeoh, Chris Evans, Cliff Curtis, and Benedict Wong. Most of them have gone on to bigger and better genre projects, and they really do have a chance to shine here. And of course there’s Mark Strong, who generally gets a more comprehensible voice than this, but has made a career of playing equally creepy villains. The key takeaway here is that I went into this film knowing that it would eventually turn horrific, and that tension may have compromised my objectivity when it came to evaluating the movie’s world-ending stakes. Nonetheless, Capa’s opening voice-over spells it out concisely enough – this is Earth’s last, best shot, and if it fails, the species is done – and this cast (Evans and Curtis in particular) does a stellar job of letting those stakes inform their every action and character beat, even as the slasher elements gradually appear.

The screenplay, written by Alex Garland (Never Let Me Go, Ex Machina), begins at just the right moment, right when Icarus II is about to enter the “dead zone” – an area in which the sun’s electromagnetic field is so powerful that they will be unable to send transmissions back to Earth. So they get one final round of messages home, and then it’s radio silence for two years. I don’t know if this dead zone is based in fact, but the movie does get one other detail right that I didn’t know when I first saw the film – flying into the sun from the Earth is really hard – actually harder than leaving the Solar System! That’s to say, if you point a rocket directly at the sun and fire it off, you’ll just keep missing it, because the rocket begins by orbiting the sun at the same relative velocity as the Earth (30km/sec). So you need to fly very, very fast in the opposite direction along the orbital plane (or do something much cooler and more difficult to slow yourself down) before you’ll be able to fly toward the sun in any meaningful way. MinutePhysics on YouTube tells the tale better, so I’d encourage you to check them out. But the key takeaway is that this rocket had to expend a massive quantity of fuel to make it to the sun, and we briefly see a photo of the crew which confirms that it nailed this (record-fast) velocity at some point. What’s my point in bringing this up? This movie is not a scientific documentary (its scientific advisor is quite explicit on this point, and is happy to hand-wave things like artificial gravity), but it at least seems interested in science, and that was something I very much appreciated while watching it. Like Moon and Interstellar after it, this movie gets enough details right for me to believe that it respects the audience’s intelligence, and doesn’t toss away science for mindless peril like so many others.

Back to the imminent comms blackout – Capa and Mace (Evans) have a bit of a brawl. I like this moment, not because I think a fistfight on a spaceship is particularly professional, but because this is over a legitimately unsolvable issue. Capa took a bit too long to send his message, and now Mace won’t be able to talk to his family for two more years (or perhaps ever again). It’s more than just an accident – it’s a wound, and it won’t heal. There will be more of these. These astronauts, collectively, are the most distant humans in history from the rest of humanity, and this moment exemplifies that loneliness. The ship’s pilot, Cassie (Byrne), is not having it, and promptly calls the entire crew in to deal with the “excess of manliness breaking out in the Comm center”. Before too long, Mace is baring his soul with the ship’s doctor and shrink, Searle (Curtis), then basking on the holodeck grinning into a simulation of crashing waves on a boardwalk. We’re just now starting to understand the full psychological effect of long-term close quarters space travel and isolation, and virtual reality has been proposed as a means of mitigating its effects. 2007 was the year of the first iPhone, and portable computing power is finally starting to reach the point where VR could make a serious comeback. And by allowing the astronauts to feel like they’re outside of a confined space, perhaps their minds will forget their cramped quarters and intractable quarrels for a while.

And then the trouble really starts. Harvey (Troy Garity), the ship’s comms officer and XO, informs the crew that they’ve received a transmission from Icarus I. Apparently the previous ship survived, and is floating in orbit of the sun like Russell’s teapot, cloaked in the dead zone, just waiting for a ship to get close enough to hear their distress call. Trey (Wong) says – pending some very complicated math – that they could adjust their course and intercept with Icarus I. Mace, the consummate rationalist, immediately shuts down the idea. This is one of my favorite scenes in the movie. Mace is, of course, correct – they have one bomb, and one chance, to save humanity. So literally nothing else matters – not the other ship, not its crew, and not any of them. Searle chimes in to agree, but with a dangerous caveat: it may be worth it to retrieve the second bomb. Everything about the bomb is theoretical, and even with an ingenious physicist like Capa aboard, they still don’t know, can’t know, if it will work. So they have to decide whether or not the potential benefit of a second bomb is worth the danger of trying to retrieve it. This is a movie. We know the answer they’re going to choose. But I must emphasize, this is the moment where I really believed this was a crew of professionals. Mace may be correct in his assessment of the mission’s objectives and stakes, but it’s not his call. Captain Kaneda (Sanada) says it’s not his call either. There won’t be a vote, like some of them clamor for. The most qualified person will decide on the best course of action. “Shit,” says Capa, realizing who that means. Putting Mace and Capa on opposite sides of this debate, right after they’ve just had an irrational brawl, was an inspired choice, particularly since there is no perfectly correct answer to this question – they just have to make a choice. And so they go.

After a minor miscalculation, the ship is in peril. Two of them have to go outside to repair the heat shield, and the butcher’s bill is heavy. I won’t dwell on this sequence for too long, but suffice to say, it is one of the most tense and thrilling sequences in the entire film, is the first of several appearances of John Murphy‘s outstanding Adagio in D Minor (which would go on to appear in Kick-Ass and innumerable other projects). As the crew deals with the fallout of this minor arithmetic hiccup, they do so in gigantic gold spacesuits on a massive, James Bond-sized setpiece, and the sun’s imminent rise hangs ominously just over the ship’s tiny horizon, with the fate of the ship (and thus, the entire species) at stake. It is awe-inspiring, as is the battle of wills between Cassie, Mace, and the ship’s computer over whether or not to let the captain die for the sake of the mission. These are some smart, tense thrills, and I felt the same way watching this as I did watching Ryan Stone re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere in Gravity – that astronauts are the closest thing we have to superheroes in real life, strapped to a nuclear-powered chariot hurtling through the heavens. Ideally, with the utmost safety and professionalism. But it’s still glorious.

I’m starting to sound a bit like Searle here, who – in addition to semi-religiously hanging out in the ship’s forward observation room and subjecting himself to higher and higher brightness levels recreationally – seems to be starting an internal sun-worshiping cult of sorts. As Kaneda is facing his imminent demise on the prow of the ship’s heatshield, Searle demands to know what he sees. Curtis plays this character with remarkable stability, and this fleeting, creepy moment almost feels like him indulging his hobby. But it’s a moment that comes back to mind as we meet Captain Pinbacker (Strong) later on in the film. Searle is tapped with maintaining the entire crew’s mental health, and he seems to be casually creating his own god. The rest of the crew should probably be a bit more concerned about this. But they have bigger problems at the moment. Not only is the captain dead, but the entire botany bay is destroyed, sapping the ship’s oxygen. They now have no choice but to rendezvous with Icarus I.

Cassie and Capa have a moment in the payload room, which appears to be a massive cube. Cassie thinks they’re going to die. Capa describes how he thinks the bomb will go off, in semi-poetic terms. He’s not scared. She is. I’ll say here, Byrne does an admirable job with Cassie, even though she’s a fairly limited character (and naming your resident doomsayer Cassandra sounds like more of that on-the-nose naming that Garland is so fond of). But the friendship between Cassie and Capa is one of the film’s only reasonably fleshed-out relationships, and it’s probably for the best that they didn’t take it any further into space romance territory. Really not the movie for that.

I’m going to skip ahead a bit on the recap, because the scenes of exploring Icarus I and discovering the fate of its crew (minus Pinbacker) are genuinely tense and well-staged, and lead to another moment of tense pragmatism. The ship’s airlock mysteriously explodes, and they have no means of getting the four of them back to Icarus II. And this is the moment when Harvey, the comms officer, XO, and least mission-critical person on the ship, reveals himself to be a selfish coward, demanding the only spacesuit for himself. Mace has already volunteered Capa for that slot, because he knows the physicist is more important than any of them. Searle finally solves the situation by volunteering to stay behind and die. He doesn’t do this out of suicidal nobility – it’s just that someone has to stay behind and cycle the airlock from inside, and he knows Harvey (the next least important person) can’t be trusted to do the job. So Searle does his duty, waiting in the sun room to literally meet his maker (if we’re being poetic about our parent star), while his three colleagues are blasted out of the airlock: Capa in a spacesuit, the rest in open vacuum, wrapped in shipboard insulation. My only objection to this scene (apart from being the most direct ripoff of Event Horizon) was that it was a bit narratively tidy – the movie still needed Capa and Mace, so they got to live. But it’s not like an exploding airlock has a sense of justice or practicality, and the conventional hero (Mace) surviving rather than the briefly selfish jerk (who floats away and dies horribly) was pure dumb luck – one of the only times the movie indulges in such contrivance.

Mace gives a post-mortem. He concludes that the ship’s airlock could only have been destroyed by sabotage, and the only possible saboteur is Trey, who at last word, was on suicide watch, blaming himself for Kaneda’s death. And there’s more, chimes in Corazon (Yeoh), who was responsible for the now-extinct oxygen garden. If Trey dies, they’re down to four breathers, and they have enough oxygen to make it to the sun and complete their mission. And so…we get the next scene of hyperrationality. These scenes hammer away at my psyche every time I watch the film, and as I watch these scientists coldly calculate the costs and benefits of murdering their colleague, I can’t help but think this alienation of their humanity is one of the film’s most important themes. Save the world, the movie asks? Sure. But it’ll cost you all the best parts of yourself. Mace volunteers to do the deed himself, but insists on a unanimous decision. “Kill him,” says Capa. But Cassie refuses. “You’re saying you need my vote, and I’m saying you can’t have it.” Their own mini-Circle has failed to reach a consensus, and Mace treks off to murder Trey anyway. But he quickly finds that Trey has beaten him to it, with a scalpel from the infirmary. Mace takes a moment to blame Capa for Trey’s death, and literally smear blood onto his hands, and then they have another feckless brawl while the women look on in disgust. And this is where Mace officially got on my nerves. I still like the sum of this character, but he is just as much of an emotional creature as the rest of them, and the film’s insistence on his rationality strains when he continuously engages in petty bickering, especially over the corpse of a man he was about to murder himself. He may be more reliable than someone like Harvey, but he’s not much better in the end. But as much as the character manages to put me off by the end, Evans’ performance is outstanding, and I can see why he was tapped for Snowpiercer after playing this character. His hyperrationality and stoicism were inflated to villainous excess in that film. He may have eventually become the cheery and optimistic Steve Rogers, but between those two films, I’ll never forget what Evans is capable of.

And finally, we have a showdown with Pinbacker, who was responsible for the airlock sabotage and has made it onto Icarus II. It’s a well-done thriller sequence (resulting in two more cool deaths), but I can’t help but wonder at this point what kind of film this might have been without Melanoma Man (props to Daniel for this) as the final twist. Pinbacker represents the worst excesses of mankind’s failure, monologuing about our foolishness in the face of annihilation by God. My final verdict on Pinbacker is that he was good, but not essential. Humanity could be destroyed by an asteroid or a gamma ray burst in the blink of an eye, and the collapse of our sole lifegiving star is on the same level. The Great Filter is terrifying enough without carefully-vetted professional humans bringing irrationality and quasireligious nihilism to the party. Humanity may bring its own demons to bear on its extinction, but it strikes me as unlikely that those demons will be quite so literal. But I may be trying to thread an impossible needle here. My main complaint about Europa Report was that watching competent professionals do their jobs well – even if that job is something that would utterly capture my imagination in real life – is pretty boring. Sunshine gets this balance right, whichever side it lands on.

Once the cinematic terror is sorted, it’s time for the surviving crew to fall into the sun, and that’s when things get a bit magical and weird. Earlier in the film, when Capa and Cassie were discussing the prospect of changing course, Capa explains, “Between the boosters and the gravity of the sun the velocity of the payload will get so great that space and time will become smeared together and everything will distort. Everything will be unquantifiable.” This is as close as we ever get to an explanation for the film’s ending, and you know what? It works. Humanity’s best scientist and smartest computer both can’t say what the subjective experience of falling into the sun strapped to a giant bomb approaching relativistic speeds will be like. Time dilation kicks in, and perhaps there’s room for a conscious being to experience its own annihilation in the elongated space within an instant. Either way, Murphy’s score is playing its heart out, Capa’s voiceover kicks back on, and the film is over. An ever-so-slight brightening of the sun over a snowy Sydney, Australia reveals that the crew succeeded, eight minutes after the crew becomes stardust. This isn’t an ending that belabors itself or grasps for meaning. This tale of salvation is big enough on its own, even after a decade and plenty more to compare it to.

FilmWonk rating: 8 out of 10

FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #113 – “Atomic Blonde” (dir. David Leitch)

Poster for "Atomic Blonde"

In this week’s podcast, Glenn and Daniel have a grand ol’ spy romp with Charlize Theron. It’s not complicated, but it is fun – and it succeeds on soundtrack where Baby Driver failed with us (22:20).

May contain NSFW language.

FilmWonk rating: 7.5 out of 10

Show notes:

  • Music for this episode is the tracks “Major Tom (Völlig Losgelöst)” by Peter Schilling, and a new, dour version of “99 Luftballons” by Kaleida, from the film’s soundtrack.
  • CORRECTION: We lamented Theron’s relative lack of starring roles – of course, she was the sole lead in Æon Flux and Monster, the latter to great critical acclaim.

Listen above, or download: Atomic Blonde (right-click, save as, or click/tap to play on a non-flash browser)

FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #112 – “Valerian” (dir. Luc Besson), “City of Ghosts” (dir. Matthew Heineman)

Poster for "Valerian"

In this week’s podcast, Glenn and Daniel address an age-old question – is Fifth Element and Lucy director Luc Besson still a master of sci-fi, and can strong worldbuilding (and one surprising gem of a performance) make up for dubious screenwriting. Come along and find out, but first, check out an important documentary about the worst excesses of ISIS in Syria, and the brave men and women who risk their lives to reveal them to the world (56:31).

May contain NSFW language.

Still from "City of Ghosts" (2017 documentary film)

FilmWonk rating (City of Ghosts): 7 out of 10
FilmWonk rating (Valerian): 6.5/10 (Glenn), 7/10 (Daniel)

Show notes:

  • [01:52] Review: City of Ghosts
  • [23:06] Review: Valerian
  • [37:41] Spoilers: Valerian
  • Music for this episode is the track, “Space Oddity” by David Bowie, from the Valerian soundtrack.
  • Full disclosure, the “back of the envelope” calculation of Alpha’s escape velocity from Earth was done with some assistance from computational knowledge engine Wolfram Alpha, which revealed – assuming a consistent velocity over 600 years (for the sake of simplicity) – that the station was going too slow (relative to the Earth) by a factor of 187.8 to escape Earth’s gravity. And yes, this was just me being nerdy. Not an actual complaint.

Listen above, or download: Valerian, City of Ghosts (right-click, save as, or click/tap to play on a non-flash browser)

Matt Reeves’ “War for the Planet of the Apes” – An uneven, but fitting end

Poster for "War for the Planet of the Apes"

Caesar (Andy Serkis, voice and mo-cap) really is an epic, tragic hero, and his odyssey over the course of the Planet of the Apes reboot trilogy is a grand spectacle to behold. It owes much of this to Weta Digital’s stunning visual effects and creature work on Caesar and his ape companions (Maurice the Orangutan is a particular masterpiece, and looked as good in 2011 as now). At the time, I said of director Rupert Wyatt‘s series reboot that “it’s easy to overlook just how smart and well-executed this film is, given that Rise of the Planet of the Apes nearly drowns in its rush to saturate itself with big-budget blockbuster stupidity”. The sequels from director Matt Reeves have only heightened these competing impulses – toward deeper and grander themes of the nature of war amid the collapse and clash of a pair of sapient civilizations, and increasingly ridiculous levels of well-rendered, low-stakes blockbuster twaddle. In this way, War for the Planet of the Apes is a fitting end to this trilogy, because not only does it deliver a satisfying ending to the film’s only continuous group of characters – apes all – but because it doubles down on many of the series’ most facile impulses. Its homages to classic cinema perform a tenuous and inconsistent tonal dance as the film tries to have its cake and eat it too – delivering a sincere, satisfying, and at times, devastating emotional journey for Serkis and his team to digitally render before us, but also allowing his marvelous creature to become an over-the-top action hero who is repeatedly bailed out of serious trouble by happenstance, antagonist stupidity, and script-demanded good fortune.

I’m being harder on this film than I expected, but I actually had a great deal of fun watching it. After Rise showcased the accidental fall of mankind, Dawn delivered an astonishing allegory on the fragility of peace, showing how bad actors on either side can topple the equilibrium with far greater ease than those who are trying desperately to preserve it. The second film had a clear-eyed message: it didn’t have to be this way. If humanity’s remnants had simply listened to the better angels of their nature – and if its intelligent ape children had done the same – then they might have found a way to coexist on a planet that would be forever changed. It was a real achievement that the series ever made this peace seem possible (even knowing that a blockbuster’s second chapter seldom ends happily), and as this film returns years later into full-fledged conflict, that fleeting memory makes it that much harder to bear. Human soldiers creep through the jungle, ambushing apes and getting ambushed in return, with dozens dead on either side. The film revels in that tragedy, but it never feels exploitative. And it comes as no surprise when the ruthless human Colonel McCullough (Woody Harrelson) is first introduced as a staticky voice on a radio, first telling a lone surviving grunt that he is now in command, and then – when his imminent death becomes clear – ferociously ordering him to “kill as many of them as you can”.

Woody Harrelson in "War for the Planet of the Apes"

The most obvious of the film’s influences is Apocalypse Now (an ape-pun version of this is literally spray-painted on a tunnel wall), but the strongest component of that homage is certainly Harrelson, who delivers a solid performance on fairly limited dialogue and screen presence. The Colonel is introduced as a sort of nightmare-creature – a nemesis who spits on your attempts at peace or compromise, and sneaks up in the dead of night to butcher you in your bed. And when his truer nature is revealed later as something a bit more banal in the fanatical fog of war, the distinction hardly matters. The film’s handling of the Colonel is masterful, because we first meet him from the apes’ perspective as a figure whose existence is so loathsome that it will rip Caesar away from his beleaguered tribe of apes on a suicidal vendetta. Strong, stoic Caesar, whom we’ve witnessed learning about the goodness and ills of human and apekind alike, is shattered by the basest of human desires – to vanquish one’s enemy at any cost. And what a grand journey it becomes. It is perhaps somewhere in Weta Digital’s contract that every one of their films must include a LOTR-esque epic journey, and this film certainly delivers it, as Caesar and his team of besties tear off on horseback. You know these beats already. Caesar doesn’t want them to come, but Maurice (Karin Konoval), Rocket (Terry Notary), and a strange newcomer known as Bad Ape (Steve Zahn) simply can’t let him undertake this journey alone. Composer Michael Giacchino has grown since his Lost days, with the film’s boisterous themes trumpeting forth like a classic adventure film – Howard Shore meets Sergio Leone. The lush, cavernous cinematography as the troupe distantly (but not too distantly) trails the Colonel’s army will make you gawk at the glory of this cinematic war odyssey, but also ponder why no one in the baggage train bothered to glance back with a clean pair of binoculars. And the less said about the film’s haphazard use of floodlights, the better. War is a gorgeous and eminently watchable film that lets its characters get away with any reckless, ill-conceived action until the moment the script decrees that it’s time for the next conflict – and even then, the sheer lucky spectacle of it all makes those bad choices seem almost correct.

In a sense, the film is predictable, insofar as its genre influences are clear. If there’s an enemy camp, it will be invaded. If there are prisoners, they will escape. All of this will end in blood and fire and death, perhaps right where the giant fuel tanks are discourteously stored. But from a broader perspective, the film manages to maintain a foreboding sense of mystery about the overall tides of the war, as well as the state of the larger world and either species. The series is called Planet of the Apes, and yet it feels suspiciously like the death spiral of all life on Earth, and that is an unyielding source of tension as the series goes on. In much the same way as Game of Thrones, I found myself screaming silently at these characters: Stop this. Stop it now, while some of you are still alive. But that’s perhaps where the film maintains a sheen of optimism, because its most persistent and surprising message is about the tenacity of our nobler instincts. I say “our”, but I’m including the apes in this assessment. The film repeatedly argues, in a manner that is true to these characters, that the overriding impulse of any intelligent being is toward acts of grace, mercy, and compassion. The film hammers this sanguine point repeatedly through character beats, then drives the entire thing off a cliff for a final action sequence that, if I’m being honest, I had quite a bit of fun watching, but found rather narratively unsatisfying. The clashing CGI armies look as good as ever, and yet feel far more anonymous and inconsequential than ever before. War for the Planet of the Apes freely depicts the brutal and unfair horror of death in warfare, but is also happy to showcase death as an admirable, peaceful thing that happens on a mountaintop before sunset.

Still from "War for the Planet of the Apes"

The result is a mixed bag. Caesar makes some atrocious choices in War for the Planet of the Apes, and the film, in a sense, lets him off the hook by presenting a third act that felt utterly devoid of conventional stakes and still allowed him to be a triumphant hero. And yet, I can’t call the film a failure for it, because it still feels like as deep and consequential an exploration of warfare as this series has ever delivered. Perhaps the best avatar for this film is Zahn’s character of “Bad Ape”. He is almost a circus clown version of Koba, the scarred, bitter ape who gleefully started this war in the second film. Bad Ape was mistreated by humans in his former life, but retains the name they used to shout at him, as well as his status as a bitter, lonely, broken-down coward. He is nominally a comic-relief character, and yet I never once stopped feeling compassion for him. And that compassion felt vindicated through his actions by the film’s end. Bad Ape – in addition to being one of the finest CGI creations since Maurice – embodies a deep, abiding sadness. That’s what I felt at the end of this film. That might’ve been exactly what it wanted.

FilmWonk rating: 7 out of 10