I had the house to myself this weekend as my family was traveling. I spent my days working on projects and my evenings catching up on some genre movies I’ve been meaning to watch. So here are my quick-hit reviews. They may contain some spoilers.
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
So the first reboot from a few years ago, “Rise of…”, was better than it really had any right to be. The Caesar ape character stole the show and it was a compelling story overall. So in this sequel, we skip ahead a number of years and the opening credits paint us a not-so-rosy picture of a world ravaged by a new plague: simian flu. The population has been decimated and a small band of people are holed up in San Francisco. But we don’t start with them, we start with the growing colony of advanced apes that live in the woods near SF. They are led by Caesar, the first advanced ape from the previous film. He has a family and the colony is thriving and working together.
The central conflict begins when a band of humans from the city venture into ape territory looking for a dam that they hope to activate in hopes of bringing power back to their city. During the initial confrontation, one of the men shoots an ape. Distrust between the two groups grows quickly. However, Caesar and the human Malcolm forge a friendship as they work together to fix the dam. But the peace is short-lived. Another ape, Koba, tries to assassinate Caesar and start a war with the humans.
The effects in this film are fairly staggering. In this age of motion capture, this is one of the rare examples of the technology done right. The apes are fantastic and look absolutely real. The fight scenes are well done too.
What grabbed me most was the story and the underlying themes of war and the heart of man (and ape) for violence and power and distrust of “the other”. It’s easy to immediately dislike those that are different, especially when you have experienced pain in the past from similar people. Hatred and war often spring from distrust and lust for power. Koba’s belief that humans are all bad compels him to strike out at them, but it’s his lust for power that completely consumes him and pushes him to attack even his own. This story does these themes infinitely better than Avatar, another mo-cap heavy movie, did. Just a really powerful and engaging film.
Mad Max: Fury Road
Some have called it the best film of 2015. It’s a continuation of George Miller’s Mad Max series that has been stagnant for 30 years now. With Tom Hardy in the titular role, this film opens with a jarring sequence that sets up the horror of this post-apocalyptic landscape and re-introduces the character by putting him in dire straights.
Max is captured by a colony ruled by an evil “king” named Immortan Joe. Those people he rules are beholden to him because he controls an underground water source. His thralls believe him to be a god and that death on his behalf is rewarded with new life. Max is a slave who provides blood transfusions for Joe’s fighters. But when one of Joe’s fuel run drivers goes rogue and makes off with his slave brides, Joe dispatches his fighters to bring them all back. Max is mounted like a hood ornament on this wild pursuit.
What follows is a frantic chase film that almost never stops to catch its breath. While “Dawn of…” above was a triumph of CGI, this film is a victory for practical effects. The chases and mobile fight scenes are amazingly orchestrated. The entire look of the film is gorgeous. Even the creative costumes and makeup are part of the aesthetic.
Much has been made about this film being a “feminist” action movie – due in large part to the great character of Furiosa (the driver who is on a mission to save these slave girls). Max and Furiosa form a bond as they both fight for the survival of the girls. And yes, Max defers some of the fighting to Furiosa and that image of female empowerment is great. But are we really now defining “feminism” as simply valuing women and not wanting to see them exploited?
There’s a lot of masculinity here too. Max goes off to fight for the women alone at one point and tells them to keep going. Or how about the reformed slave boy who begins to fall for one of the “brides” and ends up sacrificing his life to save hers. That’s the utmost expression of love (especially in the Christ-like, husband role that the Bible talks about). And, yes, it’s a refreshing twist that Max and Furiosa never lock lips in the film. This wasn’t their love story, it was a story of liberating the slaves and overthrowing evil power. Very cool film with some Gospel undergirding.
When Marvel announced an Ant-Man film, I thought “I don’t care that much about Ant-Man”. But then they announced the Edgar Wright would direct it. That got my attention. I love, love Edgar Wright and his directing style. From the TV show “Spaced” to “Scott Pilgrim vs. The World” to the Cornetto trilogy, he is a great director. I was instantly excited to see this film. Unfortunately, it was not to be. Wright left the project in the middle of production. Word on the street was that the studio wanted too much say in the movie and he decided he didn’t like his vision encroached on. So Marvel brought in Peyton Reed to finish it off. My excitement returned to pre-Wright levels. It was just another Marvel movie as far as I was concerned.
Marvel also had made a habit recently of trying other genre templates in their movies. Captain America: The Winter Soldier was a sort of riff on a cold war, espionage thriller. Guardians of the Galaxy was a sci-fi romp. Ant-Man, we were told, was a heist film. That sounded pretty cool.
So anyway, the movie opens with a great scene of Hank Pym (the original Ant-Man) sparring with SHIELD leadership in the late 80’s about his tech. We see Howard Stark and Peggy Carter (!!!) and are introduced to the idea of reducing the space between atoms to shrink objects. Fast forward to our hero, Scott Lang, in prison for robbing a corrupt millionaire’s house and crashing his expensive car into his pool. Scott is getting out of prison and giving up his life of crime to be there for his young daughter. Of course, the old heist trope is brought in: one last, sure-thing job.
Through a series of events, Scott is “hired” by Hank Pym to use Pym’s Ant-Man suit to break into his old laboratory and steal the shrinking tech that new company head Darren Cross (played perfectly by Corey Stoll) is about to sell to the highest bidder. Oh, and Hank Pym’s daughter Hope is part of the plan, but miffed that Pym won’t let her wear the suit and do the mission. Sidebar: Evangeline Lilly is really great in the role of Hope. Really, all the casting is note-perfect here as in almost every Marvel movie.
This film was great. Chock full of fun heist stuff, but always very self-aware and never over the top. Paul Rudd’s comedic timing and characterization is on point here as he sticks his foot in his mouth countless times. It’s shades of Chris Pratt’s Starlord, which is always a good thing. Scott Lang’s criminal gang is perfect with their comedy relief on countless occasions as well. And the final fight scene on a kid’s play table was amazing. Oh, and I can’t forget to mention that this movie tackled the whole “he can also control ants” thing amazingly well. It was a huge part of the whole thing and never felt shoehorned in.
And the best part? There’s still a lot of Edgar Wright in this movie. Fun musical cues are found in weird places. Quick cuts and lip-synced flashbacks were, perhaps, the most obvious calling cards that showed off his style. I was so happy to find those things. #TeamEdgar
So yeah, this movie was better than I expected. It’s nice that Marvel puts out giant, cosmic, global adventure movies like Age of Ultron, but is also willing to tell somewhat smaller stories like this one. Very, very fun.