“War for the Planet of the Apes”

It’s time the Academy takes motion-capture work seriously because Andy Serkis is incredible in “War for the Planet of the Apes.” His performance throughout the three recent “Apes” films is an expressive and dynamic piece of work.

Two years after Caesar (Serkis) defeated Koba (Toby Kebbel) and prepared for war against humans, Caesar’s battling The Colonel (Woody Harrelson), a genocidal military leader hellbent on exterminating apes. Their recent battle results in significant losses for Caesar, leading him on a quest for vengeance. However, his loyal followers Maurice (Karin Konoval) and Rocket (Terry Notary) grow concerned as Caesar grows increasingly merciless.

“War for the Planet of the Apes” is an epic, brutal, and amazing installment of the franchise. Between the Vietnam War-inspired opening battle, Western-style cinematography, and some thought-provoking moments about evolution and devolution, this is a rare brainy blockbuster.

If you haven’t seen “Rise” or “Dawn,” you should definitely watch those before “War.” This is a trilogy that follows the evolution of a complex protagonist. Caesar has come a long way from a naive being that can only communicate in sign language. He can now communicate in full sentences and is aware of the world’s harsh realities. The humans on the other hand, are another story.

The Colonel is a mad leader that we’ve seen before in film and in history. Think a mixture of Colonel Kurtz (Marlon Brando in “Apocalypse Now”) and Hitler. Harrelson’s performance is insane-yet-restrained, which is enough to overcome the character’s cliches. The final showdown between he and Caesar is an unconventional one that suits both characters.

The underrated Steve Zahn also has a great supporting performance as Bad Ape, a cowardly ape drifter who aids Caesar. He adds much-needed humor to the film without imposing on its dark tone. The film occasionally focuses on Bad Ape being an unlikely hero and Maurice fathering a young mute orphan, which add heart to the film.

As much as I loved “War,” I was disappointed in its black-and-white approach on good and evil. In “Dawn,” we had good apes and humans, and bad apes and humans. This made “Dawn” morally complex since all characters were relatable. “War” goes back to the “Rise” roots with its good apes and bad humans mentality, which made the characters’ arcs simple.

Director Matt Reeves proved himself to be a visionary filmmaker with “Dawn” and “War,” showing he can make a spectacle with brains. Let’s see how he does with his Batman movies.

Grade: A-

“Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2”

I am Groot… I am Groot…  I am impressed with “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2.” It’s the first MCU sequel done right since “Captain America: The Winter Soldier.”

After completing another successful mission, Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Drax (Dave Bautista), Rocket Raccoon (Bradley Cooper), and Baby Groot (Vin Diesel) meet the enigmatic Ego (Kurt Russell). He helps the group and reveals himself to be Peter’s dad, shocking the group.

Meanwhile, Yondu (Michael Rooker) and Nebula (Karen Gillan) return to settle their scores, Peter and Gamora must deal with their feelings, Rocket Raccoon comes to terms with who he is, and Baby Groot dances adorably.

“Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” maintains its predecessor’s energy, colorful effects, kinetic action sequences, and killer soundtrack. It takes the humor and character moments up a few notches, resulting in a surprisingly hilarious and emotional sequel. If “Vol. 1” is “A New Hope,” then “Vol. 2” is “The Empire Strikes Back.”

Without getting too much into the plot, the Guardians split into two groups where alliances form, betrayals occur, and revelations are revealed. Quill spends a portion of the movie torn between family and his destiny; it’s bittersweet and sometimes heartbreaking.

“Vol. 2” is fun, though! Don’t let my description fool you. The standout sequences are a delightful opening credits sequence, a space ship battle that’s an obvious nod to the arcade gaming era, and any scene involving Yondu (Rooker kills it).

The cast is once again great with their chemistry and comedic timing; they’re even better in their dramatic moments. Kurt Russell’s performance is a little too exposition-heavy, but his charm and charisma make it acceptable.

I could have done without Sylvester Stallone as Stakar Ogord. He literally has two minutes of screen time, angrily delivers exposition about Yondu, and leaves until the end. For a hyped character, I expected more for Sly to do.

The MCU has a bad history with sequels, but “Vol. 2” proves you don’t have to one-up all elements for a sequel; it’s okay to slow down and expand on the characters’ back story. You don’t see that in a superhero film often, which is admirable.

Grade: A-

“The Fate of the Furious”

Who would have thought that a “Point Break” rip-off called “The Fast & the Furious” would have spawned seven sequels? I didn’t. Who would have thought the franchise would have gone from the gearhead genre to the spy genre? I didn’t. “The Fate of the Furious” sticks to the spy roots.

Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel) and Letty (Michelle Rodriguez) are on their honeymoon when a mysterious terrorist named Cipher (Charlize Theron) persuades Dominic to join her organization. Letty and Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson) lead their team alongside Mr Nobody (Kurt Russell) and their old nemesis Deckard Shaw (Jason Statham) to stop Dominic and Cipher’s plan.

The “Fast and Furious” franchise is a ridiculous blast. I personally wasn’t a fan of the first two installments since they were too serious, but each installment got better. “The Fate of the Furious” doesn’t reach the same level of fun as “Fast Five” and “Fast and Furious 6,” or the same emotional level as “Furious 7,” but it’s still solid escapism.

Most of the cast members are clearly having a blast. Johnson and Statham break character making each other laugh mid-banter, Kurt Russell is cool as always, and Tyrese Gibson and Ludracris once again add a great dose of humor. Even Helen Mirren has a rich cameo as a reluctant ally of the team.

Diesel, on the other hand, has no passion or effort in his performance. He goes from low tone to screaming like Nicolas Cage, and it’s sad to watch. I also expected more from Theron, but she phones in every cool-spoken philosophical monologue. It’s more cliched than menacing.

“The Fate of the Furious” features some frenetic action sequences, including raining cars from the sky and a battle royale-style prison fight. The climactic submarine duel is underwhelming since it feels reminiscent of “Fast and Furious 6’s” climax.

I applaud “The Fate of the Furious” for maintaining its fun over-the-top style and we have two more installments. However, with the loss of Paul Walker, the film struggles to maintain its heart and soul. Hopefully they’ll restore this within the next installment along with Diesel’s passion.

Grade: B-

Franchise ranked 1-8:

  1. Fast Five
  2. Fast & Furious 6
  3. Furious 7
  4. The Fast & the Furious: Tokyo Drift
  5. The Fate of the Furious
  6. Fast & Furious
  7. The Fast & the Furious
  8. 2 Fast 2 Furious

“T2: Trainspotting”

It’s about time Danny Boyle and Ewan McGregor made amends and followed up “Trainspotting” (one of my favorite films) with a sequel. It’s better than half of the long-waited sequels.

Nearly 20 years after Mark (McGregor) stole money from his friends, Mark now lives in Amsterdam with a wife and career. He unexpectedly returns to Scotland and reconciles with estranged friends Simon (Jonny Lee Miller) and Spud (Ewen Bremmer). They aren’t as fortunate since Simon now makes a living blackmailing people and Spud has relapsed into his heroin addiction. Then the psycho Begbie (Robert Carlyle) escapes prison, raising hell for the trio.

The brilliant and kinetic Boyle once again shows flare and energy in this long-waited followup. “T2” might seem unnecessary, but there’s a sequel book (“Trainspotting” is based on a novel), so it’s somewhat necessary. When it slows down in storytelling, Boyle makes up for it with his visuals and music.

There are quite a few transgressive moments in “T2” that have the same level of energy as “Trainspotting.” Most of these moments are electrified by the cast. Whether it’s Mark singing a song about King William killing Catholics in front of an ecstatic audience, or Mark and Begbie realizing they’ve ran into each other in a sleazy men’s bathroom, the laughs are consistent.

“T2” slows down halfway through and shifts to a nostalgic tone, which is both admirable and frustrating. We see the characters in a new light with Mark realizing he’s not as innocent as he lets on, he and Simon are criticized by Simon’s girlfriend Veronika (Anjela Nedyalkova), and Begbie sees the error in his ways.

Simultaneously, Spud spends most of his time writing a novel and these scenes result in pacing issues. Veronika’s subplot with her, Mark, and Simon nearly turn the film into a formulaic romantic comedy, but thankfully Begbie (an always great Robert Carlyle) saves the film from going that direction. Another plus about the nostalgic tone is viewers don’t need to see “Trainspotting” to follow along. “T2” stands on its own.

The ending scene is dark if you analyze it closely. Characters seem okay either staying in the same place or simply going backwards. “Trainspotting” was about rebelling against society, so it’s obvious these characters won’t snap out of their rebellion. And I’m okay with that!

Grade: B

“John Wick: Chapter 2”

Keanu Reeves needs to keep making action movies because his stunt work in “John Wick: Chapter 2” is impeccable. He tops his work in the film’s predecessor.

Picking up where the first one ended, Wick reclaims his car and settles back into retirement with an adorable unnamed pit bull. When crime boss Santino D’Antonio (Riccardo Scamarcio) asks Wick to pull off an impossible job, Wick is forced into it due to a blood oath. Wick soon finds himself double crossed and shooting his way out of both Rome and New York, as he finds a contract put on him.

“John Wick: Chapter 2” starts with a bang, combining a car chase with mixed martial arts in innovative fashion. It’s one of several versatile and jaw-dropping action sequences. While “Chapter 1” was mostly shooting, “Chapter 2” features knife fights, stealth kills, foot chases, and one epic gunfight in the Roman Catacombs where Reeves shows off impressive weapons training.

The action in “Chapter 2” ranges from brutal and intense (there’s a pencil kill that tops “The Dark Knight”) to plain ridiculous (look out for a never-ending stair scene). It’s even in both categories and Reeves once again delivers a restrained performance.

Director Chad Stahelski further expands the world building by diving deeper into the Continental’s rules and benefits, featuring some darkly funny moments. We even learn how large the assassin guild is since nearly everyone in “Chapter 2” is an assassin.

While “Chapter 2” improves in its world building and action sequences, it sadly declines in writing and gritty tone. Wick is fighting for survival, which isn’t as edgy or compelling as him seeking revenge. Santino isn’t nearly smug or despicable like the Tarasovs from “Chapter 1,” either.

The final act comes off forced and anti-climactic, but this is forgivable due to the film’s relentless pace and world building. Now when is “Chapter 3” coming out again?

Grade: B+

Top 10 Most Anticipated Movies of 2017

 

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Happy New Year! Did you have fun? Are you tired of countdowns? Well, bare with me because I have one. I’ve chosen my top 10 most anticipated Movies of 2017. Let the countdown begin!

10) Wonder Woman (in theaters 6/2) – The DC Cinematic Universe has been rather tame since Man of Steel was released in 2013. With Gal Gadot arguably being the strongest part of Batman vs. Superman, and a trailer demonstrating the titular character’s humanity and positive attributes, Wonder Woman has the potential of being the first great DC-CU movie.

9) Split (in theaters 1/20) – I never thought I’d say again that I’m excited for an M. Night Shymalan movie. The trailer for Split features some of M. Night’s flaws (overly intelligent kids, exposition-fueled dialogue), but in terms of direction and acting, Split looks like a bone-chiller. James McAvoy showed his sinister side in Trance and he appears to embrace it again with Split.

8) Power Rangers (in theaters 3/24) – This one’s on my list out of nostalgia. Plus being a sucker for superhero movies and John Hughes movies, Power Rangers looks like a solid combination of the two. Here’s to hoping it’s not just a generic origin movie.

7) The Lego Batman Movie (in theaters 2/10) – The Lego Movie was the biggest surprise of 2014, and Will Arnett’s satirical performance as Batman was one of my favorite parts. Two hours of Will Arnett as Batman, Zach Galifianakis as The Joker, and Michael Cera as Robin? I’m sold.

6) Star Wars: Episode VIII (in theaters 12/15) – If The Force Awakens followed A New Hope, then we can expect Episode VIII to be as dark and epic as Empire Strikes Back. With the underrated Rian Johnson (Looper) writing and directing, he can potentially satisfy the disappointed Force Awakens viewers.

5) Kingsman: the Golden Circle (in theaters 10/6) – For the first time, Matthew Vaughn isn’t flaking out on a sequel to his own movie! Kick-Ass 2 was watered down lackluster compared to his mayhem-fueled Kick-Ass, and X-Men: Days of Future Past wasn’t as imaginative as X-Men: First Class. Can The Golden Circle be as good as The Secret Service? With Jeff Bridges, Channing Tatum, and Julianne Moore cast, here’s to hoping!

4) Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 – The Guardians are back in what appears to be another visually arresting and hilarious space opera. Plus we get a little Tango and Cash reunion with Kurt Russell and Sylvester Stallone being cast in key roles? I’m in.

3) Dunkirk (in theaters 7/21) – I’ve been a fan of Christopher Nolan’s work since Batman Begins (the first film I saw of his), and Dunkirk looks like Nolan is branching out of his comfort zone. Instead of science or psychology, Nolan explores history. We have an ensemble cast, so we’ll see various perspectives in Dunkirk, giving us a potentially epic and powerful journey.

2) Alien: Covenant (in theaters 5/19) – Alien and Aliens both excited and terrified me simultaneously when I saw them as a kid. The red band trailer for Alien: Covenant gave me that same reaction. Besides the nostalgia, I’m happy to hear that all of Prometheus’s questions will be answered and Covenant will be a full transition into the Alien franchise.

1) Blade Runner: 2049 (in theaters 10/6) – Harrison Ford is rumored to be in Blade Runner: 2049 for a short amount of time, but that’s okay. Ryan Gosling is our new lead and his acting style suits the psychological and ambiguous tones of Blade Runner. Denis Villeneuve (Sicario, Prisoners, Arrival) is now director and with his trademark cinematographer Roger Deakins (Skyfall, No Country for Old Men) and composer Johan Johansson, Blade Runner: 2049 will be a dark, artistic experience that suits our world.

“Blair Witch”

Is September the month for “lost in the woods” movies? I just reviewed “The Sea of Trees” yesterday and now I’m reviewing “Blair Witch.” Between the two, this one’s better.

“Blair Witch” takes place twenty years after the events of “The Blair Witch Project.” James discovers found footage on Youtube and believes that his sister Heather (the predecessor’s protagonist) is in the video. He enlists his friends Lisa, Peter, and Ashley, as well as a pair of locals named Lane and Talia to explore Burkittsville. And if you’ve seen the first movie, you know what to expect.

Director Adam Wingard is a talented genre filmmaker. With the gruesomely entertaining “You’re Next” and criminally underrated “The Guest” under his belt, he’s an ideal choice for horror movies. However, “Blair Witch” demonstrates Wingard’s greatest flaw – he relies on his film’s climax as the selling point.

The first two acts of “Blair Witch” feature some innovative camera techniques, including earpiece cameras and some spooky drone shots. But the characters debate the Blair Witch’s existence, they wonder in circles around the woods, the sun never comes up, a scared character cries in front of the camera, and they end up in a house. It’s the same movie as “The Blair Witch Project.”

The final fifteen minutes are terrifying and feature some brilliant uses of lighting and sound, as well as an unsettling twist. It’s just not enough to recommend sitting through two generic acts of storytelling.

Grade: C