Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi Review

As widely beloved as it is, Star Wars: Episode VII- The Force Awakens has been criticized for how similar its plot and story elements are to George Lucas’ original Star Wars film, A New Hope.  Director J.J. Abrams clearly believed the best way to revive the franchise after the controversial prequels was to include many echoes and references to the original films in order to remind audiences why they loved Star Wars in the first place.  This was an understandable, safe, and mostly effective choice but it has led to the film rightfully being called unoriginal.  Rian Johnson, director of The Force Awakens‘ sequel, was clearly determined to avoid such criticisms and it shows in his own entry to the saga of the galaxy far, far away.  Star Wars: Episode VIII- The Last Jedi is easily the most ambitious film in the franchise since its famed second entry, The Empire Strikes Back.  Johnson is unafraid to challenge or outright ignore the unspoken laws and traditions of making a Star Wars movie and while The Last Jedi is far, far from perfect as a singular film it takes necessary steps to move the franchise into a more creative, less nostalgic future, even as it maintains a sometimes-self-contradicting relationship with the past.

Emphasizing how different The Last Jedi proves to be when all is said and done is how similar it seems at the beginning to its own counterpart in the original Star Wars trilogy, the aforementioned Empire Strikes Back.  Once again, a trilogy’s middle chapter finds the forces of good, in this case the Resistance, most recognizably represented by Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), Finn (John Boyega), and General Leia Organa (the late Carrie Fisher) being hunted to the point of near extinction by their evil counterparts, Supreme Leader Snoke’s (Andy Serkis) First Order, the most notable member of which is Leia’s traitorous son Ben Solo/Kylo Ren (Adam Driver).  Meanwhile, the heroes’ best hope for victory, Daisy Ridley’s Rey, who fills the role once inhabited by Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) has traveled to the outer reaches of the galaxy to master her supernatural Force abilities and learn the ways of the Jedi from an aged master, Luke himself, who now holds the wisdom once imparted to him by Yoda.  The first significant distinction The Last Jedi makes from its spiritual predecessor is in Luke’s plain refusal to train Rey in the Jedi arts.  Instead of focusing on exploring the importance of faith and inner peace in practicing the Force as the creators of Empire did Johnson uses the conflict between Luke and Rey to explore the minds and souls of the two broken characters.  Ridley’s performance is once again superb, with a rare level of emotional vulnerability and Rey again proves to be one of the most intriguing new characters in recent cinema.  Luke’s characterization and Hamill’s performance will prove to be much more controversial.  While in some moments Luke is 100% the character viewers first met 40 years ago, changed naturally by age and trauma, in others he seems off, with a crotchety, strange sense of Grinch-like humor that seems to more closely match Hamill’s real-life persona than it does Luke’s previously established character.

Like many past Star Wars directors, Johnson seems most excited by the core scenes dealing with the Skywalker family drama and the mythology of the Force and this can be both a blessing and a curse to the film.  The military confrontation Poe, Finn, and Leia find themselves in is a mixed bag in terms of filmmaking quality.  After a disastrous opening space battle the small remaining Resistance fleet is trapped in an unending barrage of enemy fire.  Finn goes on a secret mission with Rose (Kelly Marie-Tran), a plucky mechanic, to find a codebreaker who may be able to sabotage the First Order crafts while Poe, Leia, and Admiral Holdo (Laura Dern) debate on the best, most moral strategy to use on the front lines.  Poe, Rose, and Finn all have well-written arcs (though Finn’s is so subtle that Boyega is left without much memorable dialogue) and the idea of a Star Wars film structured in the style of a thriller about an impossibly dire military disaster such as Argo or Lone Survivor is intriguing but Johnson rarely if ever delivers the pressure-cooker intensity such a structure demands.  The film’s pacing is too gradual to sell the constant danger that such a situation would cause.  It’s easy to forget these and the film’s other flaws however, when the focus returns to Rey’s Jedi journey.  As mixed as Luke’s characterization can be Johnson’s script tells a moving story as the original Star Wars hero must contend with his own culpability in his nephew’s fall to the Dark Side and placing Rey in the middle of this dark family fight gives her a unique challenge primarily based on emotional interactions rather than lightsaber fights (though there is a spectacularly choreographed one of those late in the film).  A mysterious, intriguing bond is established early-on between Rey and Ben and Ridley and Driver are captivating on screen together. Rey’s climactic confrontation with both the fallen son of Han Solo and his master, Snoke, is one of the highlights of the entire Star Wars saga to date.

While Johnson avoids retelling the story of The Empire Strikes Back, mainly through some truly shocking developments in the third act that leave the path of Episode IX delightfully unclear, he still has a fascination with examining the cultural meanings of Star Wars as a franchise similar to those shown by Abrams and Garth Evans, director of spin-off Rogue One, even if he does so in a different way.  While Abrams largely sought to replicate the original films’ most iconic elements and Evans’ film served to further detail the backstory of A New Hope, Johnson devotes himself to deconstructing the iconography and story elements that make Star Wars Star Wars.  Rey’s arc challenges some of the saga’s previously established ideas of destiny and the nature of the Force.  Poe’s constant clashes with Leia and other authority figures critique the type of roguish hero popularized by Han Solo whom are often completely incapable of following orders or working as part of a unit.  As interesting as this meditation on Star Wars as a genre is it does lead to some problems and these can largely be seen through Finn’s role in the movie.  Execution aside, the basis of Finn’s character was one of the more unique aspects of The Force Awakens but within The Last Jedi the lack of an established Star Wars archetype to tie Finn to leaves his role feeling somewhat random.  

Additionally, while examining the core elements of the most popular film franchise in history is intriguing, after three films of doing so the time has come to abandon the meta-commentary.  What really makes the original films so great was their singular focus on telling great stories.  Johnson’s work is largely necessary to set the saga on a less self-obsessed path, but it still has the problems that come with making a Star Wars movie that’s also a movie about Star Wars.  Conversely, some of his attempts to break with tradition seem more critical and angry than necessary.  The saga will be back to its full potential when the right balance is achieved between pure storytelling ambition and franchise tradition.  As Ben says in one of The Last Jedi‘s best scenes, “You have to let the past die,” as “that’s the only way you’ll become what you’re meant to be”.  Johnson’s boldness and focus on character development tied together through the theme of moving on largely accomplish those two goals well, but like his antagonist he also apparently believes that it’s okay to violently kill the past, without seeing the problems with that line of thinking.



Blade Runner 2049 Review

Hollywood’s recent trend of producing sequels to some of the most beloved films and series in its history is, if nothing else, bold.  For every genuinely brilliant continuation like Mad Max: Fury Road there’s an abomination like Terminator Genisys.  Fortunately the misfires have so far been new follow-ups to films or series that have less vocal fanbases (can you imagine if Star Wars Episode VII was objectively bad after the prequel debacle?) The announcement of a sequel to Blade Runner was both one of the most risky and interesting of these propositions.  While many less optimistic fans predicted the new entry would be nothing but a soulless cash-grab, it was always worth remembering that the first film was far from a smash hit at the box-office and only gained its critically acclaimed reputation years after its initial release (partly due to the plethora of different editions Ridley Scott and company kept releasing).  The appointment of talented director Denis Villeneuve further cemented the idea that Warner Brothers really might have something more on its mind than money.  After his recent string of dark and affecting films, Villeneuve seemed like the kind of filmmaker that just might be able to follow-up Scott’s classic in a fresh way.  Now that the fruit of his labor has arrived I can confirm those optimistic suspicions were right.  Blade Runner 2049 is an ambitious, emotional piece of sci-fi filmmaking that is bold enough to walk its own path but clever enough to honor its famed predecessor in intriguing ways.

We return to the dreary, despairing, futuristic Los Angeles Scott based off Phillip K. Dick’s novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, thirty years further down its path of decay, to follow the story of a new LAPD blade runner, K (Ryan Gosling).  The job is the same for K as it was for Harrison Ford’s Rick Deckard in the original film, hunting down and destroying rogue replicants, the bioengineered humans the new world uses as slaves.  The film opens with K “retiring” his latest target (or victim), Sapper Morton (a bespectacled, philosophical Dave Bautista).  The shocking secrets of bodily remains found on Morton’s property set K on the path to unraveling a mystery with profound implications for himself and the long-missing Deckard.  Before he is killed, Morton assures K the only reason he can participate in such a cruel occupation is because he’s “never seen a miracle” and the eerie beauty of this scene sets the tone for the entire film.  Villeneuve has crafted something sad and strange here, but its also something not devoid of hope, a kind of melancholy wonder.

One of Blade Runner 2049‘s greatest strengths is the way it devotes itself, even more so than its predecessor did, to its noir influences.  This may be a tale of complex, challenging sci-fi, but its all wrapped up in an engrossing, dark mystery that sucks the viewer into its shadowy world so effortlessly that they don’t realize for a long time that they’ve become much more invested in the characters and themes than the plot.  It’s the perfect way to draw viewer’s into K’s subtle, affecting story.  Of course there’s more to that story than just the thrill of the unknown.  Like the original film, 2049 is all about the meanings of humanity and what separates genuine life from its artificial counterpart and these contemplations make for mesmerizing viewing, especially since the story is approached from angles different enough to its predecessor’s to feel unique.  Gosling brings the perfect mix of detachment and existential pain for the material.  K’s character has his similarities to Deckard but where Ford played a tired, beaten down man, Gosling makes it clear K is just plain lost.  Ana de Armas is a scene stealer as K’s holographic girlfriend, Joi, and their peculiar romance provides a necessary sense of warmth to the otherwise very dark film.

Its worth emphasizing that this really is K’s story first and foremost.  Deckard is a supporting character in every sense of the term, which fans of the original film are probably best off knowing going in.  The mythology and continuing plots from the first film, including what links K’s investigation to Deckard, are established early on but 2049 is in no rush to reintroduce the original cinematic blade runner.  I’m not particularly good at estimating how much real time passes during a film, but I’m willing to bet Ford’s first scene isn’t until past the hour and a half mark.  None of which is an indication of the quality of Villeneuve’s use of Dick and Scott’s famed protagonist.  Deckard receives a well-developed, moving story that, much like the new film as a whole, is marginally more clear than its counterpart in the abstract original.  Deckard as a character reflects this greater clarity himself.  Ford turns in a completely different performance than he did in 1982, open-hearted and emotional where he once was weary and merciless.  You might say Deckard’s more human here, which is one of the sequel’s most subtle, significant points.  Regarding the one great question about the character that has haunted audiences for decades, Villeneuve is particularly graceful.  2049‘s plot more strongly suggests one answer but it never outright confirms or denies the true nature of Rick Deckard.

If there are any areas in which 2049 truly replicates its predecessor they are in the film’s look and sound.  Villeneuve and famed cinematographer Roger Deakins do excellent work visualizing what Scott’s famed cityscape would like thirty years further into the future and make some strong visual choices of their own when the story ventures outside Los Angeles, with an irradiated, ruined Las Vegas being particularly striking.  The work of composers Benjamin Wallfisch and Hanz Zimmer on 2049 would feel right at home among the haunting, iconic efforts Vangelis produced for the first film.  The one technical element that is suprsingly bland about 2049 is the direction of its action sequences.  In both films fight scenes come about more from plot necessity than anything else and neither director seems particularly interested in extensive choreography or exciting stunts.  That said, Scott was still able to make a point with his set pieces which had some effective displays of the enhanced strength of replicants, which in turn proved Deckard’s formidability in defeating them.  Villeneuve’s fisticuffs are simply slow and visually uninteresting, which is disappointing coming from the filmmaker who staged Sicario’s quick but memorable shootouts.

It has its flaws, but Blade Runner 2049 is a rare sequel in that it can truly stand as equal to, or perhaps even surpass (in at least some regards), its legendary predecessor.  While the themes and questions being dealt with are those already addressed by Dick and Scott, Villeneuve and company have their own unique answers and perspectives that are equally compelling.  This is everything good sci-fi films should aspire to, a unique story that uses outlandish concepts to dissect fundamental aspects of life, in this case, what it means to be human.

Arrow “Tribute” Review

Before their return I planned to do quick reviews of the season premieres of all four of the CW’s DC Comics-inspired superhero series. Unfortunately, Legends of Tomorrow’s return hour was the only one that inspired anything worth writing. The Flash has become exceedingly stale, with a stubborn devotion to elements that simply don’t work that is keeping it from returning to its first-season glory. I actually rather enjoyed Supergirl’s tale, which hinted at a season that will be a bit darker and more emotionally challenging than those that have come before. But while watching I realized my past viewing of the series has been so infrequent and casual that I wouldn’t be able to really pick apart the current state of the series’ characters and themes with any depth. Arrow’s premiere was sadly the greatest disappointment. The series that kick-started the appropriately named Arrowverse is coming off a frankly miraculous comeback year in which a return to its original gritty tone and rededication to exploring Stephen Amell’s endlessly interesting take on Oliver Queen/ Green Arrow revitalized a show that had become some strange near parody of itself that was devoted more to soap opera-like relationship drama than the superhero antics it was always supposed to feature. That history with mediocrity and preposterousness is what made Arrow’s sixth season premiere so alarming. Not only did “Fallout” follow up on the fifth season’s final, spectacular cliffhanger in the least satisfying way possible it was simply itself a poorly put together episode, one which jumped from scene to scene without giving any of them any weight and had technical elements indicating a lack of effort. Thankfully the second episode of the sixth season, “Tribute”, is a much more satisfying experience. It’s much more well-edited than its predecessor which hopefully paints the lack of flow that plagued “Fallout” as only a temporary hiccup, a result of trying to do too much in forty-two minutes. More importantly “Tribute” starts an interesting journey of its own that leaves the viewer enticed enough to spend a little more time with Oliver, even though his ten-year journey (those flashbacks may have been inconsistent in episode-to-episode quality, but they wound up telling a fairly unique story pretty well as a whole) from spoiled rich kid to genuine hero has ended.
If there’s one good thing “Fallout” accomplished, it was its own cliffhanger. While the follow up to the explosion on Lian Yu was disappointing to say the least the exposure of Oliver’s secret identity seems to be a more significant, better thought out status quo shift. Admittedly its far from uncharted territory for the show (as its smart enough to admit through some quick meta dialogue) which has flirted with exposing Oliver’s vigilante nightlife to the public at least twice before and he’s not even totally public yet this time. Indeed “Tribute” ends with Oliver yet again cleared of suspicion, at least officially. But FBI agent Samandra Watson’s (Sydelle Noel) promise to continue investigating Star City’s unqualified but surprisingly effective mayor along with the genuine sense of change that’s in the air throughout this hour make it seem like Arrow is finally going to pull the trigger on unmasking the Emerald Archer. If I had to bet on it, I’d say Ollie is a public hero by the end of this season’s fifteenth episode.
That feeling of change is also partially the result of the season’s other major dramatic subplot which is shown in a much more affecting light in “Tribute”. Oliver’s adjustment to fatherhood comes into much sharper focus this week and sets up what appears to be his major struggle for the season. Again, the show has wandered through similar territory before, but Oliver’s consideration of retirement is much more emotionally logical this year than it was in Season 3. William’s (Jack Moore) fear of losing the only parent he has left is an affecting enough issue to support such a crucial plot point and Amell predictably does a great job portraying Oliver’s conflicting emotions. Oliver cares a great deal about William and is genuinely trying to be the best father he can be, but he also does not want to abandon his crime-fighting archery (which itself shows a considerable amount of character development from the show’s middle seasons). While Oliver will surely be back in the hood before long and the prospect of Diggle (David Ramsay) filling in isn’t exactly thrilling (that character seriously needs some reworking) if this intimate examination of Oliver continues at this level of quality (or dare I say it a higher one?) Season 6 may have found its footing.
As has been the case since around the middle of Season 3 the weekly subplots and use of supporting characters on Arrow are a mixed bag. As I said earlier Diggle really has become a stale character and his own issues are hardly as interesting as how his imminent tenure as Green Arrow will affect Oliver. Felicity and Curtis were surprisingly tolerable for once but only because their silly bickering about finding side jobs is so purposeless and tonally different from everything else going on that one can pretend they’re watching a different show for a minute or two or just an extra commercial. Mayor Oliver’s escapades at City Hall continue to be the most consistently entertaining element of the show other than the vigilante missions. Amell, Rene/Wild Dog (Rick Gonzalez), and Quentin Lance (Paul Blackthorne) make a great trio, able to weave between the show’s more self-referential, superior humor and strong character development as the three bond over their odd fatherly experiences. However strong this season may wind up being on its own merits I can’t help but imagine that a superior version would have had only these three, William, Thea (Willa Holland), and some of the more useful guest characters like Slade Wilson (Manu Bennet) and Black Siren (Katie Cassidy) walk away from the island. But as fun as they are Rene and Lance can’t keep Anatoly Knyazev (David Nykl) from stealing the show. The brotherly bond between Oliver and his old Russian mob mentor was one of the most tragic casualties of Season 5 and seeing the two of them at each other’s throats provides the most heartfelt pathos of the season so far. Nykl has always been an under-appreciated performer on the series and this new meaner version of Anatoly gives him an opportunity to display a highly watchable sympathetic menace and seeing Oliver go up against an enemy he doesn’t at all want to fight is an intriguing way to create a new kind of conflict and ties into the season’s theme of family well. Ultimately “Tribute” is far from an Arrow great, but it at least shows that the show has found a new direction to go in, even if it seems like there will be some considerable bumps in the road.

Legends of Tomorrow “Aruba-Con” Review

Change is usually essential to keeping things fresh in superhero television.  Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D greatly benefits from its creators’ absolute refusal to stick to any status quo for more than a few episodes at a time.  Daredevil’s two, almost equally great, seasons are about as different structurally as possible.  But there was one show that, come the end of the last season of televised super-heroics, I was crossing my fingers would just keep chugging along the same way it had been.  That show is DC’s Legends of Tomorrow, and its third season premiere has answered my prayers.  “Aruba-Con” establishes just enough new details to keep things fresh before sending its titular time-traveling heroes on what looks to be another season of the insane shenanigans that made the last season so much fun.  

If there’s one major complaint I have about “Aruba-Con”, it’s how quickly it sweeps away the Season 2 finale’s cliffhanger.  To defeat the Legion of Doom, Sara Lance/White Canary (Caity Lotz) and the rest of our beloved knuckle-head time-cops had to break the one rule of time travel they usually follow; don’t return to an exact time period you’ve already visited.  While the surprisingly menacing Legion was, of course, disposed of, the Legends were shocked upon arriving in Los Angeles, 2017, which now counted a handful of tyrannosaurus-rexes, Big Ben, and other oddities among its inhabitants.  Repairing the broken timeline is now going to be the narrative backbone of Season 3 but Rip Hunter (Arthur Darvill) and his new-fangled Time Bureau (a hopefully less-corrupt version of the Time Masters, who the Legends destroyed in the first season) send all the “anachronisms” that don’t belong in modern-day L.A. back where they belong with no effort at all.  This show wasted an opportunity to have Mick Rory (Dominic Purcell) fight dinosaurs and I feel cheated.  

Rip, whose character has regressed somewhat to seeing the Legends (mostly) as screw-ups, announces that the Time Bureau’s more professional methods of protecting the timeline mean our heroes can take early retirements.  The Legends briefly return to their own versions of normal lives but all except Professor Stein (Victor Garber) are aching to get back to repairing, screwing up, and occasionally improving history.  This brief downtime period allows for some amusing vignettes of each Legend’s daily grind, the funniest of which are Sara fantasizing about slitting the throat of the manager of the Bed Bath and Beyond stand-in she finds herself working in, and Nate Heywood/Citizen Steel (Nick Zano) bemoaning the way Wally West/Kid Flash (The Flash‘s underused Keiynan Lonsdale, in a fun cameo) never leaves enough bad guys for him to beat up.  Once a new anachronism (namely a time-displaced Julius Caesar) interrupts Mick’s long-awaited Aruba holiday, the rest of the team jumps at the opportunity to steal their beloved Waverider back from the Time Bureau in hopes of showing Rip that they deserve to be included in the time protecting fun.  In typical Legends fashion they make things much, much worse before eventually solving the problem and it’s in this nearly counter-intuitive process that the show reminds us why it’s so endearing.  Its understandably not for everyone (one episode in and this season has already shown one of the particularly dumb plot elements that you can only ignore if you’re already invested) but if you’re the kind of viewer that likes what Legends is going for there’s nothing better than seeing Caity Lotz easily defeat one of the greatest military leaders in history with a few well-placed roundhouse kicks in the middle of an extremely convenient toga-party.  

As an individual episode, “Aruba-Con” is far from a Legends great (which really is more a compliment to the show than a criticism).  Introducing the Time Bureau takes too long and even with the excuse that this is actually the Rip from five years after the end of Season 2 having him lecture Sara on what a mess she’s made when he himself was involved in the fight against the Legion erodes some of the limited viewer affection the show worked hard to get him in the last run, and is especially hypocritical given his last words before departing the Waverider were of newfound approval for Sara’s unconventional leadership style.  The show also hasn’t firmly established what Sara’s key emotional struggle of the year will be.  Even with the intrigue of Mick Rory and Martin Stein and the characteristically brilliant performances of Purcell and Garber, Lotz is Legends‘ real star and the show is at its best when Sara has something more moving to deal with than simply sticking it to Rip.  But this is all more a matter of narrative real estate than anything else.  “Aruba-Con” is a set-up episode and what it sets up looks promising.  So long as the character work picks up in the coming weeks, as I imagine it will, and the mysterious threat Rip hints at late in the episode works close to as well as the Legion did, we’re in for another great year of time-jumping craziness.  It’s business as usual for Legends.  But business is booming.


The Defenders Season 1 Review

Spoilers for The Defenders and all proceeding Marvel Netflix series:

What the minds behind the Marvel Cinematic Universe accomplished with The Avengers was a minor miracle.  Bringing together the stars and storylines of four major blockbuster film franchises for one huge team-up film with only a few supporting characters and plot points existing as connective tissue was an idea that could’ve gone horribly wrong.  As pretty much anyone who sees movies knows, that wasn’t the case and the massive critical and financial success of The Avengers meant that an attempt at a similar phenomenon was inevitable.  While the Avengers saga has continued in many big screen efforts, the first Marvel project to actually replicate the build-up and hype towards that first magical meeting of heroic minds comes on TV.  Or streaming, to be more precise.  Four years ago, it was announced that Marvel and Netflix would partner up to bring viewers individual series focused on edgier heroes Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, and Iron Fist before teaming them up in The Defenders.  That fifth series is finally here and while not without its flaws, it’s well worth the wait, a television event that can’t be missed.

Despite kicking off to immense critical acclaim for Daredevil‘s brutally honest take on vigilante justice and Jessica Jones‘ dark depiction of the horrors of PTSD and sexual violence, Netflix’s Marvel slate has been stumbling as of late.  Strong senses of racial politics and musicality and a charming performance by Mike Colter as the titular character weren’t enough to save Luke Cage from problems in the story department, with character development and plot that were both too thin to fill thirteen episodes of television.  Iron Fist was a mess all around and completely tone deaf towards the problematic cultural, economic, and racial aspects of its lead character, as well as the fact that he was simply not likeable.  While it’s not the groundbreaking genius of the first two solo series, The Defenders tops its latter predecessors simply by virtue of the fact that it knows what it wants to be, and what it wants to be is an immensely fun, but still emotionally complex, tale of four damaged people coming together to fight a nearly unstoppable evil.

In terms of plot and mythology The Defenders is much more closely tied to Daredevil and Iron Fist than it is Jessica Jones or Luke Cage.  The Hand, that pesky dark magic ninja death cult that’s been bothering both Matt Murdock/Daredevil (Charlie Cox) and Danny Rand/Iron Fist (Finn Jones) throughout their respective series is back with a vengeance.  The shadow war Stick (the wonderful hardass Scott Glenn), Matt’s mentor and leader of more well-intentioned (though no less murderous) ninja outfit the Chaste, has been fighting his whole life is finally hitting a fever pitch and it doesn’t take long for it to attract the attention of our heroes.  Luke (Mike Colter) and Jessica (Krysten Ritter) are brought in fairly easily through their own vigilante activities.  Jessica finally takes a case at her private investigating job when curiosity about a missing husband who doesn’t seem to simply be cheating breaks through her careful act of apathy and Luke looks into the mysterious activities of the brother of an old (dead) ally.  It’s actually Matt who takes the longest to get sucked in.  The most experienced crime fighter of the bunch went through a meat grinder in the second season of his solo series as his personal and vigilante lives collided and it cost him loved ones and relationships on both sides.  We find him in the most interesting place, trying to put his civilian life back together by hanging up the horned helmet.  It’s a great way to continue the themes of Daredevil, which has as its thesis the idea that Matt’s super heroic night job is a compulsion that he just can’t shake, no matter how dangerous it is to his physical and mental health (and occasionally to the society he’s protecting).  Matt Murdock is a fighter who can’t really fit in normal society and Cox’s soulful performance makes these struggles and realizations fascinating to watch.

To believably sell the idea that all our heroes are really needed the threat they were facing had to have a real weight, much more so than the rather generically evil Hand members we’ve seen so far.  Thankfully, the main villain of the series comes in the form of Sigourney Weaver, who’s Alexandra is a much more complex and intriguing figure than most of her colleagues.  She’s understandable and at times sympathetic while remaining utterly devious throughout and is one of the most entertaining elements of the show, especially in the first two episodes as the pieces are moved into place for the titular team to finally come together at the end of the third hour.  Other reviewers have complained about this pacing decision, and while going almost halfway through the series before getting to its actual purpose, that being Matt, Luke, Danny, and Jessica both getting to know each other and taking down bad guys as a unit, is a bit odd, this slow build is (mostly) necessary to both establish where the characters’ heads (and hearts) are at.  Matt’s arc in particular needed a gradual start to show how different his life is without Daredevil.  Jessica and Luke also have intriguing struggles, her with her newfound local fame after killing vile super-powered rapist Kilgrave and the heroic calling she’s starting to realize she might not be able to ignore forever, and him with how to effectively help Harlem while still having a life of his own.  Its, predictably, only Danny who’s really boring to watch during this buildup period.  Finn Jones simply doesn’t handle heavy emotional material well, and the character’s trajectory isn’t established on as strong a basis as his team members’ are.

The slow burn of the series’ first half, as well as its other, smaller faults (most of which are hard to describe without veering into in-depth spoilers) are more than made up for when our four heroes finally do get together.  First uniting in a ginormous fight scene at the end of the third episode, the quartet of New York saviors is simply electric to watch and once that fight starts the series shifts into another gear and doesn’t ever let up, making it relatively unique among these Netflix and Marvel collaborations in how well it maintains momentum (with the exception of Daredevil‘s first season all the other shows have meandered a bit around their tenth episodes or so).  Giving the show with four main characters five less episodes than those with one sounds strange on paper but it works wonders.  Once one sees the whole picture they’ll see the need for those earlier small moments and it becomes clear how well constructed the whole eight-hour run is.  Pretty much every scene in the second half of the show provides either long awaited answers about the Hand (some more satisfying than others), delightful character interactions, or dynamic team-up fight scenes.

The cast and characters are by far the biggest selling points of The Defenders.  The dysfunctional group dynamic makes this by far the funniest of the Netflix Marvel series and the snarky quips are sure to delight both the general audience and fans of the comics of Brian Michael Bendis (who pretty much single handedly originated the idea of these four particular characters as a loosely organized but emotionally close crime fighting unit).  However, the real beauty comes when the show goes deeper than the typical team up shenanigans.  As fun as it is to see Jessica make fun of Matt’s superhero costume (“Nice ears”, “They’re horns…”) it’s even more satisfying to see them bond.  As curt as their first meeting is, it quickly becomes clear that the two really are the perfect friends for each other, both understanding one another and each challenging the other to be better people when all their other loved ones have only been able to do one or another so far.  Ritter and Cox are beyond even their talented co-stars throughout but when they’re together there’s genuine magic on screen.  The show’s other go to duo is no slouch either though.  The iconic Luke Cage/Iron Fist bromance is represented well here, in fact much better than many who watched Iron Fist the series probably believed possible.  Nearly all the complaints viewers had with the Danny Rand character are brought up in Luke’s tough love advice and Colter’s perfect blend of pathos and cheese brings out much stronger work from Jones, who is at his best playing up Danny’s youthful goofiness, leaving the angst to the more rightfully damaged characters and more reliable actors.  There’s still a significant amount of work to be done to really salvage this interpretation of the character (if we’re supposed to like Danny, watching Luke rip into him for his white privilege probably shouldn’t be quite so satisfying) but the potential is there.  While these are the most frequently used pairings of characters, the show knows to give viewers plenty of time with the Defenders as a foursome both for action and dialogue (the series absolute highlights along with the Jessica/Matt duo) and to make sure the other relationships among the team get enough time, with Jessica and Luke subtly realizing they still have feelings for each other after their screwed up romance in Jessica Jones and Danny idolizing Matt being other gems worth mentioning.  The group dynamic really is a marvel (no pun intended) of subtle and emotionally logical writing.  The show’s creators are smart enough to know that their new superhero buddies shouldn’t supplant say Trish Walker (Rachael Taylor) in Jessica’s heart or Foggy Nelson (Elden Henson) or Karen Page (Deborah Ann Wool) in Matt’s and they make this clear through the short but sweet use of such characters.  That being said, it is also clear that the four Defenders have a strong familial bond by the series’ end, with the actors nailing the kind of nearly tangible love that only comes from outsiders finding people who truly understand them.

As well as the show does spreading its focus to everyone, Matt is pretty much definitively the main character.  This is fairly logical as he was the first character most viewers were introduced to and the comic version has the most diverse and consistently impressive catalogue of stories (The Defenders being a very loose adaptation of the second half of Frank Miller’s famed first run on the Daredevil comic) but it’s worth noting for those audience members who are here primarily for Jessica, Luke, or Danny (that last breed of fan being particularly rare, I know).  However, the story the creators have crafted around Matt as he tries to salvage the soul of resurrected love Elektra (Elodie Yung) from the Hand while dealing with his three new compatriots is so engrossing I can’t imagine many people complaining of Daredevil fatigue.

The more specific details of the series are a bit of a mixed bag.  Yung and Glenn are joined in the main non-villain supporting cast (or not purely villainous in Yung’s case) by Jessica Henwick as Danny’s lover and partner Colleen Wing, Simone Missick as Detective Misty Knight, and Rosario Dawson as the nurse with a million super friends, Claire Temple (characters like Taylor’s and Henson’s put in more brief appearances).  Of these five the characters originating from Daredevil fare a lot better than the two who don’t.  Henwick gets to play out some decent sword fights but Colleen is a victim of inconsistent and repetitive writing that makes her emotional moments more of a chore than they should be.  The Defenders as a show, much like Luke Cage before it, seems to think Misty is some awesome butt-kicker when she remains an annoying bureaucrat.  Missick’s arrogant performance simply adds to the idea that the character thinks she’s a lot more clever and useful than she really is.  Thankfully, Glenn and Dawson are their reliable selves and prove the best sounding boards for the four main heroes.  Yung relishes playing an almost entirely new character most of the time before giving an affecting flash of the crazy warrior woman we know and love from Daredevil Season 2.  Other than some of the fights, the most obvious technical strength of the series is its lighting.  Throughout the series’ beginning the sections devoted to each individual hero can be identified by a distinct color palette (blues and the occasional menacing flash of purple for Jessica, green for Danny, a golden yellow for Luke, and a deep, haunting red for Matt).  As the four worlds slowly begin to fuse the colors begin to blend in a wonderful piece of visual storytelling.  The fourth episode, which spends almost its entire run time in a neon bathed Chinese restaurant as the Defenders have their first impromptu meeting, is the most visually spectacular hour of television the Marvel Cinematic Universe has ever produced. 

Ultimately The Defenders is far from perfect but gets by on how entertaining it is and its ability to deliver on the things that count.  The absence of the social commentary that made the best of Marvel and Netflix’s best collaborations is almost made up for by the fun of seeing the characters we’ve grown to know over sixty-five previous hours of television finally getting to know each other.  Especially dynamic performances from Cox, Ritter, and Yung tie things together into a dark and riveting superhero spectacle.

Wind River Review

Despite the significant impact of films like George Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road and James Mangold’s Logan, if the minor resurgence the Western is enjoying can be attributed to any one filmmaker it’s Taylor Sheridan.  The former Sons of Anarchy actor has been flexing his screenwriting muscles for a while now, scripting one absolutely brilliant film in each of the last three years.  2015 and 2016 saw the releases of Sicario and Hell or High Water respectively.  This year Sheridan took on the additional responsibility of sitting in the director’s chair, helming his first major picture.  Anyone who assumes such an inexperienced director may not be able to handle material as delicate as that which Sheridan himself writes will be proven wrong by the fruit of his latest labor.  Wind River is a pristine movie, one that both exposes societal problems and entertains by modernizing that aforementioned quintessential American genre.

The key to Sheridan’s success in revitalizing a genre many believed to be dead and dated is his awareness of the fact that at it’s core, a Western (particularly a modern one) is really just a crime story with a remote setting.  His films make this abundantly clear by leaning into other crime subgenres in order to be more palatable to modern audiences.  Sicario was a morality play about the drug war, Hell or High Water was a heist movie, and Wind River is a murder mystery.  We start with a barefoot, barely dressed girl running through the thick Wyoming snow, accompanied by a vague, darkly poetic voiceover (which will be explained later).  The girl’s body is found at the Wind River Indian Reservation by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service hunter Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner), who was there to deal with some mountain lions.  Since the body was found on federal land the FBI is called in to assist the severely understaffed local authorities.  The Bureau’s response would be comical if it wasn’t such a scathing indictment of the lack of respect or priority given to the lives and affairs of Native Americans.  A single agent is sent, the inexeperienced but passionate Jane Banner (Elisabeth Olsen), who was chosen simply because her Vegas station made her the only Bureau employee even remotely close to Wind River.  The film is full of small but effective moments of social commentary like this, powerfully criticizing how little the people who rule this country care about those who should rightfully own it.

Jane herself is far from useless, becoming especially invested when she sees the victim was raped, and proves her capabilities when the stakes start rising later into the film, but she simply isn’t enough.  No, the key to this manhunt is Cory.  Drawn into the action by personal connections to the victim as well as the similarity of her death to his own late daughter’s, the animal hunter proves himself an invaluable asset in the search for this particularly depraved murderer.  While the film occasionally stretches believability in terms of how little evidentiary options other than the tracks Cory can follow Jane and the tribal police have access to, any plot conveniences are more than made up for by just  how captivating a character Cory is.  Sheridan’s crafted a new kind of cowboy here, groundbreaking in terms of both his sociopolitical significance and his emotional makeup.  Unlike his cinematic ancestors, Cory respects and cares for his Native American neighbors and family, protecting and avenging them as best he can without swerving into white savior territory.  Furthermore, Cory deals with his pain in rather unique ways for this kind of movie.  He aches in quiet moments but he isn’t a burnt out shell of a man like many other big screen vigilantes, who only seem to come alive when the fighting starts.  This is partly due to Sheridan’s quietly revolutionary move to actually give him another, living kid to be responsible to.  Renner is absolutely fantastic in the role, expertly conveying both the broken warrior and the quiet but still functional man just trying to make his way in the world following his own, uniquely honorable code.  It’s his best performance since The Town and he’s easily worthy of a third Academy Award nomination.

While utterly devoted to its star and main character above anything else, Wind River is still a very well balanced film, with all the other pieces fitting into place fairly well.  Olsen, Graham Greene, and Gil Birmingham have arguably the most important supporting parts and they each play their piece strongly.  Olsen has by far the most screen time after Renner and while a decent amount of it features her only really as a sounding board for her Avengers co-star to bounce off of, she gives off a quiet strength well and shines particularly brightly in the film’s sparse moments of dry humor, playing off Greene.  Birmingham imbues the film with extra pathos as the victim’s father, a friend of Cory’s.  Sheridan’s direction isn’t quite as bold as say, Denis Villeneuve’s was for Sicario, but it suits the material well and is ultimately a strong debut, with his best moments coming in the film’s brutally violent, yet electric action scenes, few as they may be.  The only real flaw comes with the score.  Nick Cave and Warren Ellis’ work is appropriately eerie and atmospheric throughout most of the film but becomes oddly distracting in a few choice moments where whispered, supposedly frightening lyrics can be heard.  It’s an odd, unnecessary choice that makes the film feel like its trying too hard to be edgy when that effect has already been achieved long ago.

Wind River is ultimately pretty much what one expects from a Taylor Sheridan movie, but given that one expects greatness from him after his last two efforts, that’s no bad thing.  It’s a gripping movie that continues its director’s quest to rescue the Western from an early grave all while still dabbling in other genres (simple as it may be, the explanation of what caused that poor girl to run six miles in the snow barefoot before her death is more realistically terrifying than anything you’ll see in a half dozen horror movies these days) and is further bolstered by an awesome lead performance from Jeremy Renner.

Detroit Review

There are not many filmmakers today who understand the provocative potential of their medium to the same extent that Kathryn Bigelow does.  After directing The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty, modern masterpieces which depict the moral confusion of 21st century warfare in harrowing ways, one could understand if Bigelow maybe spent some time working on a lighter project or two or if there was a drop in quality if her next film was indeed another politically charged work.  Detroit, Bigelow’s latest directorial effort, proves all these predictions and assumptions wrong, standing as both a testament to the technical skill of its director and her collaborators and, more importantly, a statement on perhaps the greatest evil to ever infect America, an evil which is tragically still alive and well.

As most who are attending the film will likely know, Detroit is set during the infamous 12th Street Riot the titular city underwent in the summer of 1967.  While the police raid of an unlicensed club that nominally started the riot is depicted in the opening the majority of the film zeroes in on a specific instance of police brutality at a motel called the Algiers (indeed the film’s title does feel a bit off since the rioting throughout the rest of the city doesn’t receive too much focus, but this is relatively inconsequential).  The viewer is led to the tragic night at the motel by the individual stories of Larry Reed (Algee Smith), lead singer for struggling R&B group The Dramatics, racist Detroit police officer Phillip Kraus (Will Poulter), and security guard Melvin Dismukes (John Boyega), who is hired to protect a grocery store near the Algiers from the city-wide looting.  After a black Algiers guest fires a starter pistol in order to frighten police in a bout of righteous anger the motel is besieged by police and national guardsmen (accompanied by Dismukes) who supposedly mistook the sounds of the starter pistol for those of a sniper attack.  After killing one motel resident in the initial breach of the building, Krauss, who is already facing murder charges for an earlier instance of brutality, takes command of the situation.  The remaining guests, including Reed, his friend, two flirtatious white girls, and a Vietnam veteran named Greene (Anthony Mackie), among others, are rounded up and subjected to a night of horrendous violence and violation that Krauss orders in search of the gun he supposedly believes is hidden somewhere in the building.  Bigelow stages this “interrogation” in a brutally effective manner, crafting the most terrifying spectacle I have seen on screen in a long time that is made all the more horrifying when one realizes that these could very easily be events of today not fifty years ago.

For Detroit Bigelow (and screenwriter and frequent collaborator Mark Boal) employ a journalistic style of filmmaking, even more so than they did with The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty.  Much like Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk the idea is to completely immerse the viewer so they feel as if they are genuinely experiencing the horrific events on screen and I would argue that Bigelow succeeds at this even more so than Nolan does.  There’s no embellishment to make the story more cinematic here.  Characters simply move from disturbing Point A to even more disturbing Point B and it’s only Smith who is  given a narrative arc in the traditional sense of the word with the depiction of the shattering effect that horrible night in the motel has on Reed’s musical passion.  While this strictly factual approach doesn’t create a perfect movie (the first act often feels sort of jumbled in its efforts to set everything up for the horrific second and third acts) it’s the most powerful way to make the intended statement.  No thematic additions by Bigelow could make this story any more disturbing than the events themselves do and she should be commended for realizing this.

While Detroit might not be the best movie of the year (though if it isn’t it’s pretty close) it’s certainly the most important that I’ve seen so far.  Bigelow is a crusading filmmaker and is perhaps more equipped than any of her peers to address the darkest corners of American history.  Especially those that are still relevant, as the 12th Street Riot, Algiers Motel incident, and all other stories of racism sadly still are, today.

Atomic Blonde Review

A lot of movies can be criticized for having style over substance, particularly members of the action genre, many of which favor fight or chase scenes and plot twists over exploration of character or themes.  It is the truly great action movies that have all of those attributes and more.  Atomic Blonde, David Leitch’s new spy film starring Charlize Theron, is an oddity in that it certainly tries to be more than just two hours of mayhem but is in many ways better off when it doesn’t.  Blonde‘s stylish elements (most of all its fight scenes and cinematography) are extremely well executed but its attempts at introspection and sophistication are a mixed bag.  While it’s not the kind of blockbuster where you can really turn your brain off there’s a decent chance you might be confused by the film’s plot and/or messages even if you do pay close attention.

Based on the graphic novel The Coldest City, Blonde follows MI6 agent Lorraine Broughton (Theron).  After a colleague is murdered Lorraine is sent to Berlin (days before the Wall comes down) in order to retrieve that pesky list of undercover agents that’s been showing up in every other spy movie screenplay since Mission Impossible.  There she meets unorthodox Berlin station chief David Percival (James McAvoy) and French agent Delphine Lasalle (Sofia Boutella), occasionally teaming with the former and falling for the latter.  Theron and McAvoy have quite an enjoyable chemistry as damaged people who clearly understand eachother well but don’t particularly like one another.  Indeed its one of the screenplay’s bigger missed opportunities that Lorraine and David run their investigations separately with only occasional intersections.  The film actually explores David more effectively than it does Lorraine and while this allows McAvoy to turn in a great performance it makes for a bit of a disjointed experience.  The David scenes often feel like pieces of a screenplay that approached the same situation from a different perspective, at least throughout the first and second acts.  Theron and Boutella are also enjoyable together and sell a connection that could easily have come off as rushed.  Its something of a sexually charged mentor student relationship and the closest thing the movie has to a strongly beating heart.  And if nothing else Blonde deserves some points for nonchalantly using a romance between two women as the emotional backbone for a summer blockbuster.

While the movie handles Lorraine’s interactions with other characters fairly well it fails to really make her stand out on her own.  This is no fault of Theron’s who does the best she can throughout, giving a charming and believable performance.  She is let down by the writing which doesn’t have a singular approach to the character.  In some scenes Lorraine is a likeable yet cold enigma, pretty much a female Bond but in others she is a truly messed up individual who the film clearly wants the viewer to be deeply invested in and this leads to a somewhat confused experience.  The movie would probably have been better off with a more genuinely ensemble approach, contrasting each character’s reactions to the uniquely dangerous world of covert operations in Cold War Berlin.  Indeed this unique setting is already a more intriguing presence than Lorraine herself is and more focus on it would not have hurt.

As important as these other factors are to the impression Blonde will leave they are all secondary to its one truly memorable aspect: the staircase fight.  Arriving towards the end of the second act this instant classic action sequence finds Lorraine protecting an asset from a small army of enemy thugs in what is designed to look like one very long shot, fighting her way down multiple floors of an abandoned building.  In all likelihood its probably four or five still quite lengthy  shots with transitions thinly disguised by a body or two slamming into walls right next to the camera but that’s beside the point.  It’s a cinematic battle for the ages with Theron, the other actors, and the stunt team doing exquisite work.  While anyone who has seen John Wick, which Leitch co-directed would expect high class battles from the filmmaker there is nothing at all expected about this fight.  Its the perfect blend of stylish choreography and realistic brutality and technical masterful filmmaking of this level should never be taken for granted even if it only lasts a single scene (the other action scenes are all serviceable or more but the movie makers were definitely biding their time until this wonderful main event).

While the main reason its worth a big screen watch is the staircase fight there’s more to Atomic Blonde than just well-shot fisticuffs.  Strong performances, lush cinematography, and a unique setting make for an extremely watchable film that also has some interesting ideas, even if they aren’t always expressed very clearly.

Dunkirk Review

Christopher Nolan is a master filmmaker.  That much can’t really be disputed any more.  Since coming into the public eye with the groundbreaking Memento in 2000 the British writer, director, and producer has proven himself a creator of innovative films that are consistently both highly entertaining and intellectually stimulating.  But it is with Dunkirk that Nolan has unveiled his most unconventional, if not necessarily his best, film.

Depicting the evacuation of British forces from the titular French location as the latter country fell to Nazi control, Dunkirk differentiates itself from other war movies, particularly its many siblings in the World War II subgenre, by focusing solely on survival, relatively uninterested in the moral difficulties of war time.  To Nolan anyone around Dunkirk those fateful few days, both the soldiers and the civilian sailors who aided in the evacuation, were heroes, despite any faults they may have, which to be fair, Nolan doesn’t entirely ignore (English bias against the French is acknowledged a decent amount).  Therefore, Nolan sets out to depict just how extreme the conditions these men and boys endured were, calling on all his considerable filmmaking skill to do so.  Dunkirk is a rollercoaster of a film, with constantly climactic tension that does not let up for the entirety of its (admittedly short) runtime.  Nolan abandons traditional ideas of narrative to build a film that is completely experiential.  The characters’ personalities and backstories play second fiddle to the depiction of the physical challenges and fear they experience.  Nolan’s biggest concern, many might say his only concern, here is to immerse the viewer in the combative chaos he depicts.  Nolan has acquired a reputation for being a bit of a cold filmmaker and while the extent to which this is true is often exaggerated emotional impact certainly isn’t necessarily the first thing that comes to mind when one thinks of his filmography.  With the exception of his Batman trilogy the main draw to a Nolan movie is usually something other than memorable character work, examples being enthralling mysteries (such as in The Prestige) or technical filmmaking innovation (found in Inception and Memento).  It would be understandable to expect Nolan to focus more on character in a film about the tragedy of war but as he often does Nolan subverts expectations, playing fast and loose with emotional arcs in order to devote himself to making the viewer feel as if they really are on that beach, on those boats, or in those planes.  Kenneth Branagh and Mark Rylance are the only actors given really emotionally challenging material though all do their jobs at the least adequately, with Tom Hardy bringing a welcome dose of action movie cool to his role as a fighter pilot.

In addition to the focus on intensity over traditional narrative arcs, the other factor making Dunkirk feel fresh among its many war movie peers is its unique narrative structure.  Often known to employ multiple intersecting time frames, Nolan divides Dunkirk into three distinct, though still related, chapters.  One, referred to as “The Mole” depicts the week long struggle of the soldiers slowly being evacuated from the beaches of Dunkirk.  Another, “The Sea”, focuses on Rylance’s character and two others, the owner and two hands of one of the civilian boats called in to aid in the evacuation, on their day long journey to those same beaches.  Finally “The Air” follows Hardy’s character and his partners as they provide air support for the final hour of the sea mission.  Thanks to masterful editing and some carefully constructed surprises the intersections between the three timelines provide a genuine cinematic thrill.

While it certainly has its flaws (chief among them an occasional lack of clarity about where different groups are in relation to each other), Dunkirk is still something of a marvel.  An artistic, experimental film with blockbuster aesthetics that deserves more than a few Academy Award nominations, especially for cinematography and editing, it is more than anything a tribute to the real heroes of the battle it depicts that proves both the skill and integrity of its director.  Nolan’s efforts are selfless here both in terms of how he takes risks and knows when not to, in order to make the most effective, respectful film possible.  A Best Director nomination is more than deserved.

War for the Planet of the Apes Review

My first thought coming out of Matt Reeves’ War for the Planet of the Apes was “Thank goodness the next Batman movie is in good hands” and while this may seem like a distracted thought it’s actually one of the highest compliments I can pay Mister Reeves.  I confess that the cinematic exploits of the Caped Crusader are far more important to me personally than those of the sometimes friendly, sometimes not-so-friendly simians that populate the Apes films and this isn’t likely to change.  But it is the confidence Reeves inspires that is relevant here, born out of his creating a film in War that is hugely satisfying both emotionally and intellectually.

Commencing two years after the end of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (also done by Reeves), War finds the current protagonist of the franchise, Andy Serkis’ Caesar, and the rest of the intelligent, genetically modified apes whom viewers have come to know over the course of the rebooted trilogy which started with 2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes engaged in increasingly brutal conflict with a militant regiment of humans who survived the apocalyptic virus that killed off most of the planet’s population.  After the regiment’s leader, the extremist Colonel (Woody Harrelson), inflicts unspeakable horror upon Caesar, the once noble chimp sets out for revenge accompanied by three close companions with the journey testing his morality and psyche in highly intriguing ways and Serkis turns in another mesmerizing performance (while I understand some Academy members’ reluctance to nominate a performance at least partially constructed by visual effects artists for a standard leading actor award, Serkis definitely at least deserves some kind of special recognition for his pioneering work in this still-new style of acting).

Like Dawn and, to a lesser extent, Rise, War is more than anything a cautionary tale.  In addition to the social commentary against xenophobia and intolerance carried over from its predecessors War is also a powerful examination of violence and well, war.  Caesar’s always been a unique blockbuster antagonist (he is after all a chimpanzee and one that’s made enemies of humankind more than once) but War is a moral quagmire that one really doesn’t expect from a movie featuring talking animals.  While the film starts out focused on typical issues of ends justifying means the second and third acts are what push the film into the territory of great war or anti-war film, depending on how one sees it.  Reeves’ direction truly shines in the moments when he lingers intimately on the effects that Caesar’s morally questionable acts have on his soul.  This is a highly intelligent, educated simian who sees no other way to protect his family and friends than to resort to methods he knows are reprehensible.  This is Apocalypse Now, just with fur and some religious imagery.

While Caesar and the thematic ideas are the main attractions, War has plenty other things to offer.  The motion capture effects continue to stun, with a close-up, emotional dialogue between Caesar and Steve Zahn’s Bad Ape being a particular showcase for the artists’ spectacular skill at maintaining the complexities of the actors’ expressions despite heavy CGI alteration to their appearances.  While all the actors playing apes do fine work (if not as brilliant as Serkis) the real scene stealer amongst the supporting cast is Harrelson.  The Colonel is one of the best screen villains in recent years and this is thanks in no small part to Harrelson’s rage-filled, intimidating performance.  It does help that the writing for the character is very timely, with xenophobia and disregard for the rules of combat and leadership feeling like a particularly relevant blend of evil with said relevance being made abundantly clear when it is revealed the Colonel is using slave labor from prisoners to build a wall.  The film’s action is probably its biggest weakness.  First of all it bares mentioning that this isn’t at all a traditional summer blockbuster and there really isn’t that much action to discuss.  That being said, what few skirmishes there are really aren’t that impressive.  In yet another unconventional move for a sci-fi epic combat isn’t at all glorified, which fits well with the serious examination of violence Reeves is conducting.  However, not all of the violence put on screen is shocking or inventive enough to effectively display the brutality and devastation Reeves wants to convey (the score also occasionally feels a bit out of place tonally).  Scenes of torture serve their thematic purpose much better than the gun fights or human hand to ape hand combat do.  While the fight scenes in War are rightfully about as far as you can get from something like The Avengers they also not close enough to say Looper or Saving Private Ryan.

In summary, Reeves and company have created a unique and highly impressive piece of work.  War for the Planet of the Apes is a powerful examination of the self-inflicted dangers facing humanity, disguised as a sci-fi action thriller and its strengths far outweigh its few minor weaknesses.