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June 15, 2019

Saturday Evening Movie Thread 06-15-2019 [Hosted By: TheJamesMadison]

The Second Time Around

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For the kinds of stories that lend themselves to serialized storytelling in the motion picture medium, sometimes the second time around can prove more fruitful than the first. In the first, the story is concerned with origins of characters, conflicts, and settings. Oftentimes the first half of that first film is dedicated to simply explaining things.

Given a second two-hour timeframe to tell a story in the same universe with the same characters and suddenly that legwork isn't necessary. You don't have to explain everyone's relationships, the setting, and the overall conflicts. The audience should walk into the movie with the first film in the back of their minds. It's one way that franchise films actually operate differently from completely stand-alone movies. Franchise films are allowed a shorthand on certain key elements that allow for greater emphasis on more pressing storytelling elements like the plot and theme of the story at hand.

So, we can all think of second films that work better than the first, but I want to focus on one recent series that simply got better with every subsequent film: The Planet of the Apes trilogy.


Rise of the Planet of the Apes

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Really, this one should have been titled Dawn and the second should have been titled Rise, but whatever. No one was thinking that far ahead.

I remember when the trailers came out for this, and no one seemed excited about it. We've been knee-deep in remakes of classics from the 60s through the 90s for years. One more prequel, sequel, reboot, pre-seq-re-sequel wasn't going to rise to the top of the pack by its IP alone. There were other, more immediate, Intellectual Properties trying to catch eyeballs and dollars than a Planet of the Apes thing.

But then it came out, reviews started reaching the world, and everyone was surprised. The movie wasn't great, but there were parts of the movie that certainly were. The story is about a scientist (played unconvincingly by James Franco) who develops a virus based gene therapy for chimps that increases their intelligence. He raises a chimp named Caesar (played marvelously by Andy Serkis under a layer of CGI) with these advantages. And therein lies the movie. On the one hand, we have the humans who are largely uninteresting cutouts rather than characters, and on the other we have the apes who are uniformly fantastic. By about the halfway point, the focus leans more towards the apes than the humans, so we end up realizing that the main character isn't Franco, but Caesar.

Caesar releases the same virus gene therapy he received (through his mother, don't get pedantic, I know the movie) on his fellow captives in a zoo-like enclosure and leads a small rebellion and escape across San Francisco, over the Golden Gate Bridge, and into the Redwood Forest. The action is well-lensed and Caesar's journey from innocent ape to reluctant leader is convincing. It's a solid movie, but, as a whole, not that special.


Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

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Released a few years later with a new director, Matt Reeves, this got a bit more positive buzz before its release. We had seen Rise, knew there was promise and no James Franco, and were cautiously excited. Reeves had also directed the better than it should have been remake of the Swedish horror film Let the Right One In, Let Me In.

Dawn is a solid step better than Rise, but it shares a bit of the same issues with its predecessors. The human characters are improved. Instead of James Franco we have Jason Clarke and Gary Oldman, which is a definite step up. The characters, especially Oldman's, are more interesting than the generic scientist man and corporate boss man in the original, but they still pale horribly in comparison to Caesar.

Caesar, still utterly convincing CGI draped over Andy Serkis's unitard body, has hardened since we last saw him. He's led his people to carving out a tough existence in the forest away from any contact with humanity. He's also a father and family man (ape?). He doesn't just have an ideal of freedom and his own comfort to fight for, he has a people and a family to protect.

When apes and humans come into contact again, it's because the humans have left San Francisco in search of a hydroelectric dam hidden in the forest that they hope to get running again to provide them power in the upcoming winter. There's immediate distrust, but Caesar allows the humans their work under close supervision after he receives promises that the humans will make no encroachments on the ape's homes.

There is another ape, though, who simply cannot trust humans. Koba, who was in the first film, had a long history of being experimented on by human scientists and simply refuses to allow any charitable explanation for the humans' excursion out of their city. He doesn't believe they are capable of good, and if they won't start the fight he knows they want, he'll help them along.

That above scene is where the aggression between human and ape actually begins, and it's great. Koba knows exactly how to play the humans, having learned in his time moving from one lab to the next, until he teaches them that they shouldn't have trusted him. He's vicious and everything he thinks humans are. Maybe it's not his fault that he is that way, but the two men he kills are also not the ones who did the harm to him. They don't deserve it, and Koba is evil for doing what he did. There's no ambiguity around that. In fact, he takes it a step further and uses the weapons he gathers there to frame humans for a hit on Caesar.

The conflict that ends up developing isn't around humans versus apes, but between ideologies. We see the same conflict within the humans as Oldman and Clarke pit themselves against each other in the same way that Caesar and Koba do. The movie is a mature exploration of distrust, power, and violence. Oh, and it has monkeys firing automatic weapons while riding on horseback through fire:

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That is just awesome.


War for the Planet of the Apes

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Do you remember what the major flagging elements were in the previous two movies? The humans. They were borderline bad in the first and largely competently written in the second. You know what they are in the third? Fantastic.

Finally, the series put everything together, and we got a legitimately great genre picture that explores themes in mature ways while also delivering genre thrills.

First, I've already talked about how great Caesar is, and he continues to be here, but let's take a moment to talk about the new human: Woody Harrelson as The Colonel.

This isn't the first time Caesar has had a direct antagonist, but this is the first antagonist worthy of him. The Colonel is man driven by a higher ideal and the need for survival. When we first see him, he sneaks into Caesar's home and kills Caesar's family himself. We're automatically told to hate him. We don't see him again for a while, but we do see the results of some of his methods, which includes the killing of his own men without explanation.

When Caesar and The Colonel meet face to face at the Colonel's base, he seems almost like a man crazed with religious fervor for his cause, and we learn the cause. He's not mad at apes because of the virus that wiped out most of humanity, as the humans in Dawn were. He's not mad at apes because he's an asshole, as the humans in Rise were. No, he's mad at apes because they carry the virus, which has morphed and turned on humanity. Humans are no longer either dying or immune, those left with their immunity are now beginning to descend into the dumb primates we know from the very original Planet of the Apes movie. Humanity is descending from creatures of reason and high learning into beasts who cannot speak or think beyond finding their next meal. The Colonel wants to save humanity, and he's completely right when he says that it's either humanity or the apes.

The scene is quiet, but absolutely electric:

Here we have two foes that cannot exist at the same time in the same place. The existence of one means the destruction of the other. This isn't a conflict that can be resolved through words, but only violence. And how does the movie come to that violence? Spoilers!

It's a quiet resolution to a conflict only ever fought quietly, even in the midst of larger settings. It's perfect.

There's obviously more to the film. Caesar is haunted by visions of Koba. He has to deal with traitors in his own midst and appeal to apes helping the humans. There's a mute human girl named Nova (just a reference to the original's Nova, not supposed to actually be her) that Caesar ends up reluctantly taking under his protection. There's really no false note to the film. It's an exquisite conclusion to a trilogy of films that was born of a need to take advantage of an unused IP.


Back to the Point

So, in my opinion at least, the recent iteration of Planet of the Apes simply got better with every movie. Working within the same universe without the baggage of an origin movie and building off of the strengths while correcting the mistakes of the films that came before, provided a blueprint for the filmmakers to expand and deepen the material. They were able to use the previous films as starting points to explore new characters, new settings within the world, and similar themes without needing to take forty-five minutes to establish everything.

It's reasonable for the filmmakers to expect the audience to walk in knowing who Caesar is and the outline of his backstory, that humanity had been nearly wiped out, and that apes were now smart. Even if an individual audience member doesn't know it all, though, the filmmakers trust the audience to be smart enough to pay attention, appropriately suspend disbelief, and go along for the ride.

It really is unfortunate that more franchises don't treat their sequels as opportunities to expand rather than contract or retread.


Halloween II

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So, I have to dig into this example. Halloween from 1978 is one of the great horror films. It's tense, really well constructed, and scary, all without getting too gory. It launched the 80s version of the slasher craze, and when Universal came to John Carpenter asking him to write a sequel, he ended up producing a movie that was nothing more than a bad Halloween imitation. Gone is any real sense of tension. Instead we get dumb teenagers and young adults who follow slasher movie tropes on the way to gory deaths.

Instead of asking questions about Michael Myers and trying to explore the ideas behind a faceless killer and how it can affect the world around him, he becomes a less interesting version of what he was in the original. Even the original elements that are there are misused, especially Laurie Strode who spends the first 75% of the movie in a hospital bed doing nothing (probably some of the easiest money Jamie Lee Curtis ever made). There was opportunity, but it was all squandered.

The new Halloween film made by David Gordon Greene does more with the idea. Myers is pure evil, he decided, so there's no development on him directly. However, how the town of Haddonfield reacts to him changed. People want more of an explanation of his actions other than he's evil, and in their search for more than what's there, they release evil upon the world. Laurie Strode didn't just move on with her life, she was scarred deeply by her experience and can't move on. It's an interesting direction to take. The movie isn't completely successful (I pretty much agree completely with RedLetterMedia's review, especially about the out of place humor), but it actually tries to take the franchise in a direction it hadn't gone before and explore a theme related to the original without repeating it.


So...

So there's my take on Northernlurker's suggestion in the comments of my last thread:

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What are some sequels that you thought did better than the original?

Movies of Today

Opening in Theaters:
Men in Black: International
Shaft
The Dead Don't Die

Next in my Netflix Queue:
Whiplash

Movies I Saw This Fortnight:
Aladdin (Netflix Rating 3/5 | Quality Rating 2.5/4) Full Review Poster blurb: "I was actually along with it for a while, but the movie kind of got bogged down in its final act that ended up dragging the rest of the movie down with it." [Theater]
Sawdust and Tinsel (Netflix Rating 5/5 | Quality Rating 3.5/4) Full Review "What’s behind her artifice of cheap costumes and cheap perfume? A beautiful woman who loves him and stays with him." [Personal Collection]
Velvet Buzzsaw (Netflix Rating 5/5 | Quality Rating 3.5/4) Full Review "When I figured this out, my appreciation of the movie jumped. I went from thinking it was pretty good to really good." [Netflix Instant]
All These Women (Netflix Rating 2/5 | Quality Rating 1/4) Full Review "What we get instead are a series of sketches or bits that would feel appropriate as filler in a silent comedy." [Personal Collection]
Halloween (Netflix Rating 4/5 | Quality Rating 3/4) Full Review "Here’s to hoping that if they do film a second film, that they work on getting a more effective and consistent tone." [HBO]
Europa Europa (Netflix Rating 4/5 | Quality Rating 3/4) Full Review "I really liked it, and the defense that “It actually happened that way” (assuming it did), doesn’t alleviate the fact that the ending ends up silly." ["Library"]
The Edge of Seventeen (Netflix Rating 5/5 | Quality Rating 3.5/4) Full Review "It’s not a complicated movie. It’s simply a well told story, and it works really well." [Netflix Instant]
Bad Times at the El Royale (Netflix Rating 5/5 | Quality Rating 3.5/4) Full Review "That can be both entertaining and frustrating, and the movie ends up working more towards the former than the latter." [HBO]


Contact

Email any suggestions or questions to thejamesmadison.aos at symbol gmail dot com.

Follow me on Twitter.

I've also archived all the old posts here, by request. I'll add new posts a week after they originally post at the HQ.

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