WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES

​by Alan Yudman

The reboot of the Planet of the Apes franchise has gone from SciFi action thriller to the current iteration.. WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES is a deeply thoughtful and thought provoking movie. When Matt Reeves took the director’s chair from Rupert Wyatt he steered the franchise in a slightly different direction. Rather than focus on how humanity tries to save itself, DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES turned the lens on the apes, how Caesar would lead them as they searched for a safe place in their world. WAR tacks in the same direction, but ramps up the consequences.
Humans, led by Woody Harrelson’s “Colonel” are still trying to wipe out the colony of apes lead by Caesar. After a nighttime raid by the soldiers, it gets personal for Caesar after he experiences a horrific loss. His mission changes from one of survival to one of revenge. Maurice even points out that he has become “Koba”, the ape from DAWN whose attack motivated the Colonel’s own revenge fantasy. Caesar is struggling with his humanity. Is vengeance more important than survival? These are the big ticket questions the movie deals with.
While following the soldiers to a northern border outpost Caesar, Maurice, Rocket and Luca come across a young girl who is unable to speak. Maurice cannot leave her behind, so she joins the mission.
Then when they get to the outpost Caesar is captured after and ill-advised attack in a fit of rage. What follows is the Ape version of “Bridge on the River Kwai”. The apes are forced to build a wall for The Colonel. Caesar is kept in solitary confinement. It’s a battle for escape and the moral high ground. The Colonel has logical, but completely insane reasons for wanting his wall. In the end Caesar finds truth and salvation. He also discovers mercy is better than revenge.
Take the apes out of the equation and this would be a movie for everyone. Heck, it should be a movie for everyone. Some may dismiss it as just another SciFi summer tentpole because it includes motion captured, sentient apes. But this is a fine example of how SciFi can be used to tell human stories and deliver a poignant message. I loved WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES. It is one of the best films I have seen this year.

DESPICABLE ME 3


by Alan Yudman

The first two DESPICABLE ME movies were great. They were fun and clever and very funny. They also introduced us to the Minions, those adorable and hysterical helpers who assist Gru in carrying out his evil (or anti-evil) plans.
DESPICABLE ME introduced us to he uber villain Gru, and also showed his soft heart as he adopted three orphan girls. The second film was kind of a redemption. He met a girl and switched from carrying out evil to fighting it in the name of love. So, what’s next? Well, not much.
DESPICABLE ME 3 is a cute movie. It’s got all the characters you’ve come to love. Gru, the Minions, Lucy and the three girls. Unicorn loving Agnes, mischievous Edith and mature Margo. it introduces us to two new characters. It seems Gru has a twin brother Dru who runs the family pig farming business in Fredonia, but also tries to keep their father’s side business of being a villain afloat. Then there is the villain, Balthazar Bratt, a former child star from the ’80’s who has turned bitter and evil after his was rejected by Hollywood.
But none of this works as well as the first two films. The villain doesn’t seem particularly villainous. He steals a diamond and wants to float Hollywood into space as retribution. Yawn. His most interesting quirk is a love of the ’80’s from music to mullets. Oooh.. Scary….
Gru’s brother is more of a wannabe villain. He’s incompetent at it and not in an endearing or cool way. Dru really is kind of annoying.
Part of the problem is low stakes. Another problem is this feels like it was thrown together as a marketing exercise. It is kinda funny, a few chuckles. The Minions aren’t in it enough and their part in it is meh.
The kids will love it and it will rake in box office bucks. But the only think Despicable about this is that it was even made.

BABY DRIVER

by Alan Yudman

A couple of definitions.
A musical is a film that uses music and song to help tell the story.
An action movie features stunts or set pieces that illustrated the obstacles the characters must overcome to reach their goal.
So, a musical action movie? Edgar Wright has re-written the rules in his new movie BABY DRIVER. In a traditional musical the actors sing the songs. In this case, the songs are woven into the plot of the movie. It’s not random. Not, “wow, that song sounds good”. It’s precise choices made by Wright to fit moods and then he choreographs the action to fit the songs. It’s a brilliant display of innovation. In lesser hands this may not have worked, but the man who co-created the “Cornetto Trilogy” (SHAUN OF THE DEAD, HOT FUZZ and THE WORLD’S END) has a special gift for make the absurd feel mainstream.
Baby (Ansel Elgort) is a getaway driver. The character is set up in the first sequence when he puts on “Bellbottoms” by The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion and drives three bank robbers (Jon Bernthal, Jon Hamm and Eiza Gonzalez) from the scene of the crime is a manic, innovative sequence. You see Baby is an orphan. A man whose youthful appearance fits his nickname. He suffers from tinnitus and uses iPods to block out the noise. He works for Doc (Kevin Spacey), who hires the crews and plans the capers. Baby owes Doc and is nearly done paying him off. But as alway in these kind of movies, there’s one last job to pull before Baby can get out. And he wants out because he has fallen for a waitress (Lily James) and they just want to “drive west on Highway 20 in a car they can’t afford with a plan they don’t have”.
The obstacle in his plans isn’t the crime, it’s the criminals. Specifically Bats (Jamie Foxx) who lives up to his nickname.
Wright has cast the movie perfectly. Elgort’s young and pouty face give him an innocence. The rest of the characters are highly stylized. Spacey is the tough but smart brains. Bernthal and Hamm are toughs. Gonzalez is the sexy bad girl. But it’s Foxx that takes the character and makes him truly outrageous. It is a great performance. Not subtle in any way, but perfectly over the top. There’s also a great small part for Paul Williams as an weapons dealer.
Wright has said he began writing this movie years ago. He loves all these songs he’s picked for the movie and it shows in the way he has worked to choreograph and edit the scenes. The action is almost musical without the music (a signature of any Edgar Wright film), but adding the songs just ramps it up to another wonderful level. Oh, and those songs… wow! This is a fantastic movie soundtrack!
Great filmmaking does not always have to be about message. i mean in this movie it’s clear… don’t be a criminal and love can overcome anything. Sometimes a truly great artist can take a simple concept and elevate it through sheer force of talent. That is what we are looking at here. Edgar Wright has mashed up and blown up two genres with BABY DRIVER. And we are the recipients of his special genius.

THE BIG SICK

by Alan Yudman

It seems rare to me that a romantic comedy does not assume audiences are idiots and need to be pandered to. That a movie assumes the audience is capable of complex human emotions or holding two thoughts in their head or feelings in their heart at the same time. THE BIG SICK flies in the face of all those assumptions.
The film is based on the real life romance between Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon. The couple have been married for 10 years and co-wrote the screenplay. So, to say it is false or inauthentic is kind of a non-starter. This is they way their lives meshed. Of course situations and characters were changed for the purpose of a movie but that doesn’t make it feel less real.
Kumail and Emily meet in a comedy club where he is trying to work on becoming a stand-up comic. She is a grad student wanting to become a therapist. Only one of their dreams came true. Kumail is a successful comedian and comic actor. But, Emily has become a very good comedy writer and producer. So win-win.
Their relationship develops quickly in the movie. They seem to be falling in love. But Kumail has to deal with his traditional Pakistani family and his Muslim upbringing. Marriages are arranged. Prayers are said 5 times a day. Parents are not questioned. He keeps all this from Emily, just as he keeps her from his family.
Sunday dinners are an excuse for his mother to bring in yet another single Pakistani woman for an audition. And it feels like it complete with resume and headshot. Kumail keeps those photos in a cigar box. He doesn’t pray when he goes to his parents home. He goes in the basement and plays video games.
Emily finds the cigar box and questions why he is lying to her. It’s deal breaker and a relationship ender. Then one night he gets a phone call that she is in the hospital and he goes to check on her and make sure she is not alone. That’s when the movie really takes off. Emily has a life threatening infection and needs to be placed in a medically induced coma. Her parents (Holly Hunter and Ray Romano) show up, knowing Kumail lied to their daughter and for a while keep him at a distance.
But tragedy has a tendency to bring people together and reveal the best in everyone. The parents and Kumail become closer and he realizes that he is willing to sacrifice his family for her. There is a hysterical scene where after his parents (Anupam Kher and Zenobia Shroff) disavow him, he shows up for dinner uninvited to tell them he is not leaving the family.
There are so many great moments in the film, and to list them all is a fools errand. The performances are great. Hunter is wonderful as usual and Romano again shows he can handle drama. Kher is a legend in Indian cinema and you can see why in this performance that is funny and touching. Kumail’s band of friends include Aidy Bryant, Bo Burnham and Kurt Braunohler, who nearly steals parts of the movie with his over-the-top performance as a struggling comic.
it’s not one thing that makes THE BIG SICK great. It’s the combination of several very good things. Heart, honesty, funny and brains. It seems like a list of things you would want in a husband or wife. It’s also a list of real stuff that rom-com’s seem to have forgotten about. I’m glad Nanjiani and Gordon reminded us what that can look like on the big screen.

MASTER OF NONE

by Alan Yudman

Shorter is better. Especially in bingeable TV series. Seasons that are about 8 or 10 episodes long allow for better, tighter storytelling and more consistent quality. That may be most evident in the Netflix series MASTER OF NONE. The first season of the single camera comedy created by Aziz Ansari and Alan Yang was fun and sweet. It touched on relationships and how tough it is for a struggling actor to find work. It took subtle jabs at Hollywood typecasting. But mostly it introduced us to Dev Shah (Ansari) and his kaleidoscope of friends. Season 2 promised more, but went places that only a confident creative mind could go. This may be the best 10 episode arc of TV I’ve seen in a very long time.

The combination of style and substance is fantastic. Each episode is a mini indie film. The first “The Thief” is a 1970’s Italian RomCom complete with Ansari speaking almost exclusively Italian. It also introduces us to Francesca (Alessandra Mastronardi). More on her in a bit. Dev is in Modena recovering from a break-up and learning how to make pasta. Then as we move through the season we learn more about Dev and his friends. The depth of character exploration is amazing considering each episode is about 30 minutes (with one fabulous exception). There are three episodes that rise above the rest. In “Religion” Dev challenges his Muslim upbringing and realizes that rebelling against the parents that you actually love is hard on both sides of that equation. That episode also allows us a glimpse of Dev’s parents who are always a delight (and are played by Ansari’s actual Mom and Dad). In “I Love You, New York” the main characters are secondary as Ansari and Yang create a love letter to the city. And in “Thanksgiving” Dev’s friend Denise (Lena Waithe) goes on a years long emotional journey about coming out to her family that plays out in Dev’s annual participation in Thanksgiving dinner.

Those episodes are reason enough for this show to win every award that is out there. But they also aren’t part of the season-long storyline of Dev and Francesca’s flirty, yet unrequited courtship. Francesca is engaged to a man she’s been seeing for 10 years. The only man she’s ever dated. But there is a connection with Dev that is explored over the entire season and paid off in the final 2 episodes. Mastronardi is a revelation. She is able hit her comedic marks despite English not being her first language. Remember I said each episode is 30 minutes? Not the penultimate chapter, “Amaris Un Po”. That one is an hour. It is very special and the freedom to go as long as necessary is worth the extra 30 minutes.

An ever present storyline is Dev’s ambition to be an actor. He winds up hosting a baking competition show called “Clash of the Cupcakes”. He doesn’t love it, but it is work. It also introduces us to Bobby’s Canavale’s Chef Jeff. The two hit it off and create their own show for Food TV. That, like most of Dev’s life, gets torpedoed in the end and not always because he’s messed up.

Many have called this the Golden Age of Television. There is every argument it is. So many good shows, so little time. But if you are going to binge anything, MASTER OF NONE needs to be first on your list. Ansari and Yang have created something very special. Their gift is weaving comedy, romance and message into each story is not to be ignored or shrugged aside. I tried stretching the episodes out as long as possible, like saving your favorite part of a dish for the end so you can savor it. But you have to finish the meal sometime and all that means is you get to savor it again at some point. I can’t wait to dive back into MASTER OF NONE, whenever it appears on my plate again.

WAR MACHINE

by Alan Yudman

Gen. Stanley McChrystal was famously fired from his post as commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan after a scathing Rolling Stone article in which he and his staff were seen as out of control, drunk and hyper-critical of President Barack Obama. Sounds like perfect fodder for a movie. Charismatic general, endless war, outrageous characters. Yeah, it seems to tick all the boxes. So why doesn’t WAR MACHINE work at all?

Brad Pitt plays the McChrystal character, fictionalized as Gen. Glen McMahon. He is coming from outrageous success as a commander in Iraq. His counterinsurgency strategies were lauded as key to winning. So they decide to dump him into yet another quagmire to see if he can extricate a win. As we all know, that didn’t happen. So how did it all go wrong? The movie doesn’t clearly explain that. McMahon is portrayed as eccentric, earnest and slightly detached from his staff of seeming misfits. We are told they are great, but we only have anecdotal evidence of that greatness. The one highlight is Anthony Michael Hall who plays a general not so loosely based on Gen. Michael Flynn. Yeah, that Michael Flynn. He’s hot headed, outrageous and fiercely loyal to McMahon. Kind of a scary dude. If the real Flynn is like this portrayal, I wonder how he ever got even a sniff at National Security Adviser.

Anyhow, back to this weird movie. The major problem is that the film is not sure what it wants to be. Is it a cutting satire of the military? An accurate record of what really what happened? A drama with hints of comedy born out of frustrating? I have not a clue. Neither does the movie. It steps up to all those lines, but never fully commits to one theme. It doesn’t help that Pitt is hopelessly miscast as McMahon. He also doesn’t seem sure how to play him. He grunts a lot, but doesn’t seem crazy or competent enough. That adds to the confusion about where we are headed.

I went back and re-read the Rolling Stone article just to see how accurately things are portrayed. It’s pretty close. Some situations are altered for the purpose of drama or storytelling. But it is fairly accurate. Maybe too accurate. It doesn’t go far enough to the absurd to be a good satire. It’s a shame because this could have been really good given the source material. Kind of a modern Dr. Strangelove. Unfortunately, WAR MACHINE misses the mark.

WONDER WOMAN

by Alan Yudman

Marvel has owned the superhero genre. While that studio has turned out Iron Man, The Avengers, Captain America, X-Men, Deadpool, Guardians of the Galaxy, Thor and Ant-Man movies. D.C. has well, stunk. That studio owns iconic titles like Batman, Superman, Justice League among others. But so far 2 Superman movies (MAN OF STEEL and BATMAN V. SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE) have been terrible. They make GREEN LANTERN looks great by comparison. It wasn’t. But there was a glimmer of hope in Batman v. Superman. The appearance of Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman. Now Diana of Themyscira has her own movie and WONDER WOMAN finally gets it right.
There is a perfect mix of humor, drama and action. The origin story feels organic and part of the whole, rather than tacked on exposition.
Put it bluntly, Wonder Woman kicks ass. Director Patty Jenkins (MONSTER) keeps the story moving, never letting it get bogged down or slow. The action and set pieces are fabulously choreographed. Rather than the penchant for close up, frenetic fight scenes Jenkins instead goes a bit wider and slows down the movement of Diana and the other Amazons. It makes the scenes balletic, beautiful and most important— easy to follow without the need for Dramamine.
The humor is situational— mostly it plays off Diana’s naiveté about the modern world. It could have been eye rollingly dumb but it isn’t thanks largely to Chris Pine who plays it straight rather than for laughs. It will be interesting if the writers can keep it funny in the sequels, because Diana will not be innocent any longer.
The villains, a WWI German General and his mad scientist female doctor, are well drawn and easy to spot. Their motives are clear, which is refreshing. No questioning, “are they really that bad”? Yes, they are really that bad.
Pine and Gadot have wonderful chemistry. Their sexual tension is somewhat innocent, following the lead of unrequited love that played out in the TV series between Lynda Carter and Lyle Waggoner.
Gadot isn’t a great actor, but she is better than average and doesn’t overplay the role. She’s innocent, committed and fierce. Exactly what the movie needs. She is perfectly cast as the Amazonian princess. The perfect combination of beauty and bad ass.
There is always room for a sequel, but the next time we see Wonder Woman will be in the Justice League movie due out in November. Here’s hoping that movie strikes the same balance of tone and action that Patty Jenkins does here. In WONDER WOMAN, we finally have a female superhero that carries her own movie and does it successfully. That is awesome on so many levels. The fact that this film beats several Marvel movies at their own game is even better because that means we’ll see more of Diana. That’s something we should all root for.

LION

by Alan Yudman

I dunno. Maybe you have to be a parent to be seismically moved by a movie like LION. Don’t get me wrong, I really enjoyed it. How could you not enjoy every moment Sunny Pawar is on screen. How can a little kid have such screen presence? Dev Patel is amazing. He is such a great actor and does not get the credit or the roles he deserves.

In case you don’t know, LION is the true story of Saroo Brierley. The 5-year-old Saroo gets separated from his brother at a train station in India. He climbs onto a train which then whisks him to Calcutta. He then spends a year or so living on the streets before he is sent to something like an orphanage. Eventually he is adopted by an Australian couple (Nicole Kidman and David Wenham). He lives a great life in Tasmania, but as he moves into adulthood he cannot forget his family in India, so he uses Google Maps to try to find the train station where he got lost. After years, he finally finds it and is eventually reunited with his mother and younger sister. I don’t know, the use of technology to find the village where he grew up made the whole exercise a little sterile for me. Hard to dramatize a guy sitting at a computer doing Google searches. But the reunions and his relationship with his adoptive family are compelling as are young Saroo’s “adventures” in Calcutta.

On the whole LION is an above average movie that tells a moving story. But it could have been just a bit more.

GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY, VOL. 2

by Alan Yudman

James Gunn is some kind of wizard. A god-like being who can make a sequel to a unique movie and lose none of the chache, charm or tone that made us love the original.
The original Guardians of the Galaxy was an outlier in the Marvel canon. It was funny, filled with action and did not possess any of the self-importance of the Avengers movies. So the question and/or dilemma Gunn found himself facing was could he do it again. The answer is a mostly unqualified YES!
GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY, VOL. 2 is 2 hours and 15 minutes of fun, laughs, and action. Since Gunn wrote and directed both movies, it’s not hard to fathom that the transition from Vol. 1 to Vol 2 is nearly seamless. The Guardians are now problem solvers for hire. Saving the Galaxy from whatever threat is coming. Oh, and they are coming.
Once again, Gunn weaves ’70’s pop songs with action in a pleasing non-sequitor of treacle and crazy set pieces. The opening sequence sets us up for that by showing the Guardians battling an inter-dimensional creature in the background while we watch Baby Groot dance to ELO’s “Mr. Blue Sky”. They defeat the beast. Their payment from a society known as The Sovereign is Nebula, Gamora’s sister. They turn her over so the Guardian can hand her to Nova Squad on Xandar. But, Rocket steals some batteries and the Sovereign are not happy. They chase the gang and they only escape thanks to the help of a being who destroys the Sovereign fleet. That being is Ego (Kurt Russell), a name that is a bit too on the nose for reasons I won’t spoil here.
Aside from the humor and the fantastically inventive set pieces there is something more here. There is stuff about family and fathers and sons. Is your family determined by genetics or circumstance? Are your father and your dad the same person? It’s a bit heavy handed, but goes down with several spoonfuls of sugar thanks to the fabulous writing and wonderful cast.
Chris Pratt’s Peter Quill is once again the reckless outlaw with a heat in search of some family connection (hint: he finds it for good or bad). The voice work of Bradley Cooper is beyond fantastic. Dave Bautista, Zoe Saldana, Michael Rooker and Vin Diesel as Baby Groot all bring their best to the party. The addition of Russell is welcome and the smart-aleck superiority he displays as Mr. Nobody in Fate of the Furious is at full volume here. It is necessary for his character and the story, There’s even a cameo from Sylvester Stallone. I mean, what more do you want?
Guardians Vol. 2 is sure to be a huge hit for Marvel. It should be. It is a wonderful sequel in that it continues the journey and honors the characters we all grew to adore in the first film. I stuck around for the Arclight Stories feature after the film. In it, Pratt lavishes praise on Gunn and semi-seriously says he should be nominated for Best Director. It’s not hard to agree, given how well GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY, VOL. 2 continues the franchise that may be better than anything else Marvel is doing right now.