‘Apes’ Ends on Bittersweet Note; ‘Dunkirk’ a Helluva Film; ‘Valerian’ Somewhat Pretentious

By BILL GEIGER | Aug 09, 2017

Big week for heroes at CineScene. We have wartime heroes, simian heroes and a futuristic comic book hero who might be too cool for his own good. Heroes are important for a culture; they achieve their cachet by sacrificing themselves for the greater good, or by doing the seemingly impossible, or by any combination that helps save a person, team, city or nation.

In our three films this week, Matt Reeves’ “War for the Planet of the Apes” pits the hero ape, Caesar, against his supposed human counterpart, Col. McCullough, whom we come to find is anything but heroic. Our wartime interlude, “Dunkirk,” is filled with a couple hundred thousand heroes, but Christopher Nolan is able to distill the impossible into four heroic characters.

And finally, in “Valerian and the City of 1,000 Planets,” director Luc Besson tries valiantly to raise the level of viewer interest in his film to a point that we actually care for any of the characters to root for a hero. Well, maybe Valerian himself. Or maybe not. Actor Dane DeHaan is youthful looking, but in “Valerian” he looks to be about 12 years old, and has a personality to match. More on this later.

In “War for the Planet of the Apes,” Reeves has given us the final entry in his trilogy of Apes films. Rather than being an “us versus them”-type film, where the apes were the evolved species and the humans were the brutes (see the legendary original “Planet of the Apes” from 1968, on through “Beneath,” “Escape from” and, finally, “Battle for,” all spanning the years 1970 to 1973), Reeves set his films in roughly the present day, with a science experiment gone wrong, and a virus escaping to decimate the human population (dubbed the simian flu). Caesar was the initial subject of the experiments, and the injection given him, despite what the scientists thought would happen, gave him an increased brain function and high intelligence.

It all began with Reeves’ 2011’s “Rise of the Planet of the Apes,” where Caesar is introduced, and continued with 2014’s “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes,” where Caesar gradually consolidates his power but must battle an enemy ape, Koba.

We’re skipping entirely Tim Burton’s remake of “Planet of the Apes” in 2001. That one had its moments, but was mostly drivel. I reviewed it back in ’01, so if you keep old copies of The SandPaper – and I don’t know why you would not – look it up. I didn’t care for it too much.

Not so this one, which I thought had a lot going for it, not the least of which is the performance of Andy Serkis as Caesar, and he has played the smart simian since the first of Reeves’ films. Serkis’ typical ape face verges toward menacing, but that’s just how he looks. He can be friendly, hostile, agitated, pained and a host of other moods, and his face doesn’t change much. But in “War” he almost breaks into a smile at one point. That was significant.

As “War” opens, Caesar’s coterie of bonobos, orangutans and other simians are living in the peaceable kingdom of a Pacific Northwest forest. The extended group is friendly toward each other, and Caesar has organized them into various camps with different jobs. Their home is quite complex, all tunnels and overland bridges, lit by torches and set up to give them a sense of contentment. All is not well, though. A heavily armed force of human special-ops soldiers is heading toward the apes’ encampment.

We don’t know too much about them, save for their attitude toward apes. Things like “The only good ape is a dead ape” written on one of the soldier’s helmets brings to mind Private Joker’s helmet art, the peace symbol and the saying “Make love, not war,” in “Full Metal Jacket.”

These soldiers have destruction on their minds, and only during and after the battle do we learn that these soldiers were sent by Colonel McCullough (Woody Harrelson), an ape-hater and borderline maniac who fashions several attacks into the apes’ lair. McCullough is a gung-ho, all-fired-up kind of soldier, and in him Caesar may have found his match.

During one particular battle, when McCullough’s soldiers use their weaponry to maximum strength, Caesar loses his wife, who was killed, and almost loses his young son. So Caesar decides to go after him. He wants to go alone, but several apes decide to go with him, mainly to protect him. Since he lost his wife in the last McCullough attack, for him it’s personal. The apes know that, and they fear for Caesar.

One of the ape community that decides to go with him is Maurice (played by Karin Konoval), whose appearance is often as expressive as Caesar’s. The orangutan’s big oval face is like a full moon, and when he speaks to Caesar, the expressions dance about that disc like animated icons. Maurice communicates with Caesar by sign language, as all the apes communicate, but he knows a few words, and he’ll use them when necessary.

Caesar, as he is about to leave, decides to send the rest of the apes east, away from their forest, hoping he’s the one McCullough is after, and drawing the bulk of the army away from the migrating apes. Some plans are good plans, and work, others are not and do not. So it goes.

On their journey to find McCullough, they encounter a human whom they have to kill since he pulls a machine gun on them and would have done the same. They later find out he has a daughter (Amiah Miller) who is mute. Her inability to speak interests the apes, and Caesar reluctantly agrees to take her along with them since Maurice makes it clear that she won’t survive on her own. Maurice finds a doll on the floor and gives it to her. He later gives her the name Nova.

They realize McCullough’s men are heading toward a base many miles away. When they get up into the mountains, they find another ape, an old-timer who calls himself Bad Ape (played by Steve Zhan) and joins the group when Caesar finds out he can lead them to McCullough’s base. Bad Ape can speak a little English as well, as he was a zoo animal and was taught the language. Now Caesar has someone he can talk with.

They track McCullough to a large army base. Caesar decides to get caught so he can infiltrate the base and find a way to kill McCullough. Full disclosure here: The part of the film where Caesar is a prisoner is not at all pleasant. It might not be good for young kiddies to watch. Caesar endures, though, and as a new battle ensues, Caesar has it in mind to go find McCullough, who has been curiously missing from the battle, and kill him.

Harrelson plays McCullough with a bald pate, and as Caesar hunts him, and later finds him –with Nova’s doll, I should add since it’s symbolic – I was reminded of Captain Willard’s quest for Colonel Kurtz in “Apocalypse Now,” the bald Harrelson standing in for the bald Marlon Brando. Or, if you don’t like the film reference, think of the hunt for Mr. Kurtz in Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness.” That’s my second literary (or cinematic) reference, and for the films, the second Vietnam film reference. Interesting.

A bittersweet ending brings the “Apes” trilogy to an end. Since the simian flu has taken care of most human inhabitants on the globe, the apes’ only remaining quest is to find a home. Caesar leads them to one that they could enjoy for a long time. So he is the film’s hero, he did complete his mission, and his legacy will live for a long time through his son. Caesar is certainly an interesting character who, if he had been a bit more ruthless, might have been a good stand-in for the actual Roman general whose name he shares.

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I was really happy when I saw that we’d have a war movie to watch this summer; I guess you could say I really like war movies. Always have, since one of my first encounters with this genre was “The Longest Day,” the granddaddy of war movies, this one about the D-Day invasion in 1944, which I saw not when it debuted in 1962, but rather with my father at a showing in 1964, the 20-year anniversary of the actual event. I was 10 at the time, but aspired, even then, to write this column, so you could say a columnist was born in 1964.

This summer’s war movie, “Dunkirk,” is not about a determined allied invasion of Europe, as “The Longest Day” was. Rather, it was the longest 10 days, for it told the story of the evacuation of British, French, Belgian and other Allied forces from the beaches of Dunkirk, where they had been trapped by the steamrolling Nazis in late May to early June 1940. Their plight was so tenuous that one British officer asks another why there are no enemy tanks. “No need,” the officer says, “since the Nazis figure they can use their air force and pick us off the beach like shooting fish in a barrel.”

“Dunkirk” is the brainchild of writer/director Christopher Nolan, and in many ways it looks like his masterpiece. It is a superlative film, one of deep feeling and emotion, most of it etched on the faces of the main characters. Nolan, who helmed the three “Dark Knight” films, “Inception” and “Interstellar,” is known as a cerebral director, but here he relies on sparse dialog, determined expressions, and mostly the environment of the beach, of the stranded soldiers, and the sea. They wanted to get to the sea, but some who did later wish they hadn’t.

The main motif of “Dunkirk” is the citizen navy that mobilized to help evacuate the soldiers. The British Navy was fairly absent during the struggle since the ships were thought to be good targets for Nazi bombers, and thus kept away. The few times in the film we see such bombers at work proves this decision to be a good one. Still, what of those 400,000 soldiers lining the beach? The order went out from the government, and citizens with their pleasure craft or their fishing boats made the dangerous crossing of the English Channel to rescue the soldiers.

Nolan tells his story in four basic parts. There’s the story of Tommy, a young soldier played by Fionn Whitehead. His eyes dart back and forth, restless, animal like, and in the beginning of the film we see him running wildly through the streets of Dunkirk, trying to evade the Nazi soldiers who are closing in all around. He has no weapon, nothing with which to defend himself. He’s almost to the beach, but a group of British soldiers, holed up to avoid the enemy, open fire on him and almost kill him. But he survives. A Tommy, by the way, was the common designation of a British foot soldier.

The face of the second part is that of Naval Commander Bolton (Kenneth Branagh), who along with army Col. Winnant (James D’Arcy), keeps the quay as calm as possible until the multitude of soldiers can be evacuated. Bolton was the shore officer, the naval liaison with the army in the evacuation, and as such, the face of the operation.

And what a face! Branagh, an actor of passion and intensity, shows with his eyes the horrors of the beachhead. Whenever the Nazi Junkers Ju 88 (Stuka) dive bombers would appear overhead, two or three abreast, with their sirens screaming, the soldiers would hit the deck, hoping not to be in the way of the bombs as they strafed the beaches. He watches with dread from the bulkhead, knowing if they attack a ship docked to take on soldiers, the ship would sink. If they attack the beach, many soldiers would die. Bolton’s eyes tell the whole story.

The third face, or actually the third set of eyes, belong to Farrier (Tom Hardy), a Spitfire group leader, who was stoic in his flying and merciless in his pursuit of Nazi planes. A brief side note here. I saw “Dunkirk” in 70mm, which is actually a type of film, and not a digital copy. Nolan actually suggested that was the way to see it. As good as the picture was, I thought the sound was muffled a bit. So if you do see it that way, listen to these scenes carefully.

The pilot Farrier spends much of the film with an oxygen mask on his face, and that accounts for the muffled nature of his dialogue, much of the early part of which I did not hear. Once my hearing became accustomed to the sound of his voice, I could hear better, though it was still muffled. But it’s his eyes, not his voice, that tell the story.

The last face, or set of eyes, belongs to perhaps the anchor of this film, Mark Rylance, who played Mr. Dawson, one of the civilian captains, who took his boat, Moonstone, over to France to rescue stranded soldiers. Dawson took his son, Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney) to be a mate for the boat, and also took neighbor George (Barry Keoghen) along to help out. Dawson, whose worried face often sets the tone for what’s to come, rescues first a shivering soldier (Cilian Murphy) from the propeller area of a sunken, capsized ship.

Murphy has no name in the film, but suffers from an extreme case of PTSD, and shivers for most of the film. In fact, that’s how he’s listed in the cast list that scrolls down the screen at the film’s end, as the Shivering Soldier. The scenes between this soldier and Dawson are telling, and among the best in the film. The solid heroism of Dawson is brilliantly portrayed, and his eyes tell the story. Watch his eyes.

In fact, watch the eyes of all the characters – the animal eyes of Tommy, the pleading eyes of Commander Bolton, the sorrowful yet determined eyes of Dawson, and the hunter’s eyes of Farrier. Nolan tells his story through his characters’ eyes.

“Dunkirk” is a helluva film! It’s the story of courage, of nearly impossible odds, and the heroism of people and how they would willingly sacrifice their lives to help save others. If you can’t see it in 70mm, then see it in the IMAX format. But go see it. In our divisive culture these days, we need more of the moral resourcefulness found in the heroes of Dunkirk.

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I wondered at the beginning of this week’s column whether there was a hero in “Valerian and the City of 1,000 Planets,” given the actor who plays Valerian, Dane DeHaan, looks to be about 12 in the film. Now that’s not to say that a 12-year-old could not be a hero, only that in this film, directed by the action-oriented Luc Besson, Valerian is not much of one, as far as I can tell.

He’s actually more of a jerk, at least from his associate/assistant Laureline’s (Cara Delevingne) perspective. Both characters play agents in the security team at Alpha, the huge city of 1,000 planets of the title. This was actually a pretty successful graphic novel, and being able to imagine a character, even though there is a drawn picture, is better than seeing the character in real life. I guess what I’m saying is that both DeHaan and Delevingne disappoint.

I haven’t read the graphic novel, and what I know of any Valerian is that he was a later Roman emperor, so much of what happens here is new to me. One of the first images in the film is that of the great Rutger Hauer (remember him in the original “Blade Runner,” as Harrison Ford’s nemesis Roy Batty?) as president of the World State Federation, offering reasons why the original Space Station was being fitted with thrusting rockets so that it could be moved out into space to take on a life of its own. For decades it had been used by people of Earth, then by beings from other planets, until the inhabitants of Earth feared it would grow so big it would eventually crash into them.

And so it does. But now the new world, called Alpha, is being attacked from within by a strange force, what is being called a dark force, and Major Valerian, along with his associate Sgt. Laureline, is sent in to find out what is happening.

I found the film somewhat pretentious, especially in the way Valerian and Laureline treat their various assignments. For someone so young, Valerian sure has a lot of pull. Additionally, there is supposed to be some sexual tension between the two, and in fact, Valerian does have eyes for Laureline, but he also has eyes for all other females in the city of 1,000 planets, and the chemistry that’s supposed to be there between the two is totally missing in action, as it were.

The film is longish, with parts a bit dull, and even Ethan Hawke, Rihanna and Clive Owen can’t save “Valerian.” If Owen, Hawke and Rihanna can’t keep the film afloat, how will the young DeHaan or Delevingne do it? They can’t and don’t. No heroes here. So put “Valerian” on your Netflix queue and go watch “Dunkirk.” It’ll be worth your while.

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