War for the Planet of the Apes

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There have been 2 films in 2017 that have brought to mind Spartacus: Blood and Sand, my favorite television series: Logan, the elegiac superhero swan song, and War for the Planet of the Apes, a stellar capping off to mainstream cinema’s most thoughtful and moving trilogies.

The show’s exploration of vengeance and forgiveness is truly fascinating, putting on display the “enormous darkness of the heart” that one of the apes mentions to Caesar (Andy Serkis) during the final installment. It is also an unforgiving look into the lives of slaves, and the horrors they are forced to commit for the sake of their masters. However, instead of being preachy it becomes insightful. In its final season, the slaves, now holding all of the power, start committing atrocities against innocents. They have excuses for it, of course, but should bloodshed ever be rationalized?

War for the Planet of the Apes seems like a fluke in the Hollywood blockbuster churning machine. For a movie with conflict in the title, there are only two battles: one at the beginning and one at the end, tremendous set pieces that brim with suspense and emotion from start to finish.
The film is more concerned with the struggle waged in men’s souls, that constant struggle between turning the other cheek and raining fire from the sky, between tolerance and dictatorship.
The human race did not lose the planet because of a few battles against monkeys, but because in the vital, deciding moment in which the trigger had to be pulled or not, the apes gave us another chance, but we did not return the favor.
And of what good is Earth if our spirit has turned dark? Nature has a way of correcting course, so the worthy ones will inherit the planet.

A

 

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Wonder Woman

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What could have been the most insightful moment into the very nature of superheroes since that thrilling final scene in The Dark Knight occurs in the final act of Wonder Woman, when Diana Prince (Gal Gadot) realizes that evil carries on despite her executing the main baddie.

I say could have because the movie flirts with a very interesting idea that ultimately falls flat: superheroes are not just different from humans because they are stronger, but because they believe goodness can eventually overcome evil. If heroes did not believe in such a lofty ideal they would not be superheroes to begin with. Superheroes exist to achieve and aspire to heights us mere mortals cannot. That is why they punch Hitler in the face and stop a nuclear bomb at the last minute. They serve as inspiration into who we should strive to be.

The moment Diana Prince learns that the people she is trying to save are the same ones that take glee in annihilating their neighbor should be painful. It should illustrate that perhaps humanity is not worth saving after all. But that superheroes, because they are so much better than that, can see past our flaws and into the other side of our nature: the one that loves, laughs and finds the horrors of wars repugnant. Unfortunately it does not (settling for another slo-mo CGI trope ridden extravaganza), but the effort, like the heroine herself, is still noble.

B-

Logan

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Superhero movies adapted from comic books have had such a tremendous impact on popular culture during the last decade that they’ve even received their own grading curve.
“Good by superhero movie standards”, or “terrible even by comic book adaptation standards” has become the de facto response to this kind of product. Whether this is harmful or beneficial to cinema as a whole is a topic that demands its own blog post (maybe when Wonder Woman opens?), so this entry will not approach Logan as another superhero comic book movie, but rather as simply another slice of cinema.

I note this disclaimer out of fear that I will be doing this movie a disservice by calling it the best superhero movie since The Dark Knight trilogy. A quick glance into the past reveals that in the intervening years there have not really been that many memorable movies of the kind, which would take away some credit from Logan.
So instead I will say that Logan is the most memorable film I have watched since Silence; it reminds me of the greatest television series I have ever watched, Spartacus: Blood and Sand; and features a performance by Hugh Jackman so magnificent that if I cared at all about awards, I would hope against hope he’d be nominated for something.

“That was not Wolverine”, a friend lamented upon exiting the cinema. “I hated the movie.”
“I hoped that character from the other movie showed up”, the other friend said. “That would have been cool”.

I kept quiet, pondering their words. How many people spend fifteen dollars hoping to see something cool on the big screen? Is that why superhero movies are so popular, since they feature a CGI infused extravaganza of explosions and shiny costumes? Why do so little people pay mind to the human element, and the pains and the joys of life on this earth?

Logan might be the story of a 200 year old mutant who cannot die, but his tale is agonizingly human. Hugh Jackman inflicts Logan with so much sorrow that a mere glance is enough to break your heart. I would say that Logan is a man battling his demons, but it would be a misreading of the film. Logan lost that conflict many years ago. What’s left is a man who is in constant agony every waking hour, considering death a welcome change to the life filled with regret and loss he’s led up until that point.

That the script for this was approved is some sort of miracle. Consider the scene in which Laura (Dafne Keen) is riding a mechanical horse, and Logan approaches to call her back to the car. She looks at him asking for one more ride, so Logan pulls out a quarter from his pocket and says “One final time okay?”, before inserting the coin into the mechanical box next to the contraption. Logan pulls away and Laura starts to ride again.
A moment like this, lasting about thirty seconds and meaningless in the grand scheme of things, becomes beautiful not only because it survived executives overseeing it making sure they made every penny back, but because it speaks volumes about the world we all inhabit. This is real life. A kid riding a mechanical horse; an old man lifted from his wheelchair and into a public toilet; a young man saying he will drop from college to go travel across the country.
Small, fleeting moments are what make up our lives, and small, fleeting moments are what Logan is incapable of grasping. He says the adamantium inside his system is slowly killing him, but that’s only partly true.
Logan has been dying since the day he let his sorrows overtake any glimmer of hope for a better future he might have had.

Again, Hugh Jackman delivers the performance of a lifetime. It will take me a while to get rid of the images of a bruised and battered Logan out of my head, his gaze lost somewhere where the camera cannot reach. Watching it in the dark in a packed room, I felt knots in my stomach, and I wondered if my neighbors felt the same. I wanted the movie to be over and go home imagining Logan living his remaining days somewhere happily ever after.

While not a perfect movie, mainly because the quasi generic bad guys keep reminding the audience that they are watching a Marvel adaptation every time they are on screen, it reminded me of the immense power cinema holds whenever a story is well told. It reminded me that even in the midst of all the deafening noise and chaos resounding that has been ruling our world for the past year, there is still room for the intimate, and that hope should not be given up on. But most of all, it reminded me that true heroes don’t wear capes after all.

B+

Deadpool

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Superhero movies are entertaining at best, and mediocre at worst. I’ve yet to see a Marvel adaptation that makes me go “what a great film” or , excluding the Nolan trilogy, a DC one that resonates with me beyond a “ooo, fancy explosion” level.

And while Deadpool is not great cinema, not many things go kaboom in it, nor is the fate of thousands of innocent souls decided by a mano a mano between the goodies and the baddies.
In an age in which everything is a retread of a retread, Deadpool might not necessarily shatter the mold for superhero movies, but it does let audiences know they could get more shapes to it, if only they asked.

B+

The Dark Knight

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Man of Steel was just another run of the mill, mediocre superhero movie until the moment Superman (Henry Cavill) breaks Zod’s (Michael Shannon) neck and lets out a loud cry, the camera closing in on his face. That was when my indifference turned to scorn.

The Dark Knight features a similar scenario, but where Zack Snyder failed, Christopher Nolan succeeds.

The scene in question occurs halfway during the picture. The Joker (Heath Ledger) stands in the middle of the street as Batman (Christian Bale) approaches on his bat cycle.
“Hit me! Hit me!”, the Joker dares.
If Batman accepts the challenge, the Joker will be no more. Murders will cease and Gotham will return to peace. This is exactly what Batman has been fighting for since the start of the movie.
When he’s justĀ  a few meters away from the clown, Batman lets out a cry not unlike the one Superman would emit many years later. He swerves his bike and crashes into a truck.
The Joker lives.

The reason I mention Superman is because his film tried to explore the morality a superhero lives by. Since they do not operate under the same set of rules us mortals do, they must therefore guide themselves by a superior or inferior moral code. Revenge, justice and ethics are themes both these films attempt to give an answer to.
When Superman kills Zod, the audience should feel his pain. Here is a super man who, for the greater good, had to break his “no kill” rule and kill. Superman cries because once he goes over the line, there is no telling what comes next.
But the actual scene feels so forced and out of place with what came before, that it’s laughably bad. I did not care about his plight.

But the Batman scene is the opposite. You can actually feel the caped crusader’s frustrations at the various dilemmas the Joker poses him. You can feel the sense of chaos that comes over his life. It is like he wishes he had never donned the cape in the first place. And when he makes the final sacrifice, you feel for him. Because there is no coming back from that.

A-