MOVIE BUFF-ET: Reeves delivers epic finale to latest Apes trilogy

20th Century Fox

If you are looking for a sci-fi film with a little more meat on the bone than normal, director Matt Reeves might just have it for you with his latest film “War for the Planet of the Apes.”

The movie is the third leg of a trilogy that loosely sets up the story for the 1968 classic “Planet of the Apes” and its many sequels.

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The film plays off events from “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” (2011) and “Dawn of the Planet of the Ape” (2014), continuing the story of Caesar (Andy Serkis), the leader of a tribe of genetically advanced apes.

Caesar grew up in the care of scientist Will Rodman, who was working on a cure for Alzheimer’s disease. When used on Caesar, the drug, ALZ-112 enhanced his intelligence.

However at the climax of “Rise,” the pharmaceutical company sponsoring the ALZ-112 created a more power gaseous version of the chemical agent, ALZ-113. The stronger drug continued mutating the ape’s intelligence upon inhaling, but it began to kill humans, evolving into disease tagged as the Simian-flu.

“Dawn” was set 10 years later and the Simian-flu morphed into a plague that wiped out much of humanity, while the ape culture led by Caesar continued to grow. The apes and humans attempted to work toward a cautious peace, but the more aggressive factions of both couldn’t help themselves from fighting.

“War” picks up the story of Caesar a number of years later with humanity clinging very close to extinction as the Simian-flu seems to have mutated into a strain that devolves the intelligence of humans with one of the after-effects being the loss of speech.

A militant faction of the humans led by the Colonel (Woody Harrelson) attacks Caesar’s tribe in the forest, killing members of Caesar’s immediate family, setting the stage for Caesar’s quest for revenge.

Here Reeves and writing partner Mark Bomback set a course for Caesar that’s one part Spartacus, one part Moses, and one part its own thing as the Caesar struggles with his need for revenge and his tribe’s need for him to lead.

The apes have built their society on the premise that killing is wrong, but with his back against the wall and his family’s blood spilled, Caesar selfishly rethinks that proposition. The consequence of his decision places the society he built in danger of destruction.

The pace of the film is steady in the early going, but increases as it goes. The crescendo, though, is bombastic and somewhat surprising as the best moralistic sci-fi is.

Reeves weaves a clever, tight story that examines themes of racism, bigotry, zealotry, power, selfishness, and altruism, while continuing to ask the question French novelist Pierre Boulle first posed in his 1963 work La Planète des Singes: Just who is the real savage, man or ape?

In lesser hands, the movie could have become trite or ham-fisted, just an opportunity to cash in for a final time. However Reeves’ thoughtfulness elevates this movie above the norm of summertime popcorn fare as it examines fundamental questions, ones our society continues to struggle against in an entertaining way.

Without the masterful CGI and motion-capture work that allows human actors like Serkis, Karin Konoval as Maurice, Terry Notary as Rocket, and Steve Zahn as Bad Ape to convincingly perform as apes, Reeves could not accomplished as much.

The illusion of reality drew me in and never wavered. I saw distinct characters and nuanced performances rather than computer-generated constructs. The film is a technical marvel that enhances the cast’s performances, working together to make Reeves and Bomback’s story resonate.

Film studios have been enamored with the idea of trilogies for decades, but film fans have watched wonderful filmmakers stumble to cap them off with a satisfying third act. To Reeves and his cast and crew’s credit, they accomplished it.

(PG-13) 2 hr. 20 min.
Grade: A

Classic Corner

With a director as prolific and as talented as Alfred Hitchcock, it’s difficult to pick a definitive favorite among his films. In fact, the designation of “my favorite” Hitchcock movie tends to float from film to film.

Ask me in a month, and I might tell you “Rear Window,” starring a voyeuristic Jimmy Stewart and a stunning Grace Kelly. Later in the year, I might be tuned into the grandfather of all slasher films “Psycho,” but today my favorite Hitchcock film is without a doubt “Notorious.”

Only Hitchcock was crafty enough to disguise a love story as a spy thriller in 1946. On second thought, maybe “Notorious” is actually a spy movie disguised as a romance.

The film centered on a love triangle between Cary Grant’s U.S. government agent T.R. Devilin, Ingrid Bergman’s provocative yet reluctant spy Alicia Huberman, and Claude Rains’ empathetic, Nazi conspirator Alexander Sebastian works either way.

Devilin recruits Alicia, the daughter of a convicted Nazi spy, to infiltrate a group of Nazis, who fled to Brazil to escape prosecution for their World War II war crimes. Alicia is to cozy up to Sebastian, a friend of her father’s, who had carried a torch for her since prior to the war, and find out what the klatch of Nazis are up to.

Complicating matters is the fact that Devilin and Alicia fall for each other during her training. Their love is true, but complicated because as her handler, Devilin must instruct Alicia to use whatever means necessary to seduce Sebastian, who despite being a Nazi is actually a pretty nice guy. Well, at least he’s kind and loving to Alicia.

Hitchcock is both a master storyteller and a technical craftsman as a director, with his latter abilities deftly servicing the former. He introduces Grant in the first scene by shooting the back of his head while he stalks and observes Bergman prior to recruiting her for the mission.

Another famous scene skirts the Hayes Production Code, which allowed a kiss to go no longer than 30 seconds. Hitchcock maneuvered around it for a 2 ½-minute love scene by having Grant and Bergman break their lip lock just before the 30-second mark and then go right back at it.

There is also legendary crane shot from Sebastian’s Rio de Janeiro mansion that opens from a high angle shot that zeros in on Bergman and culminates with an extreme close-up of a key in her hand. That key ultimately unlocks the door to the Nazi’s secret plot and of course Hitchcock’s MacGuffin.

A MacGuffin is a plot trigger that motivates the characters, but when you boil it all down isn’t really important to the heart of the story. In this film released within a year of the United States dropping atomic bombs Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the MacGuffin is uranium ore.

However, the true focus of the movie is the love triangle, and the drama it creates for all three characters, who have admirable traits but ultimately are “Notorious.”

Turner Classic Movies is showing “Notorious” at 1:15 a.m. Saturday as part of its 50 Years of Hitchcock celebration. Each Wednesday and Friday night in July, the movie channel is serving a buffet of the director’s famous films.