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Latest Planet of the Apes Gets (Much Too) Serious

Reviews of "War for the Planet of the Apes" and "The Big Sick," plus local movie news and notes.

Photo Courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox-TM & © 2017 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. All Rights Reserved.

So what do you want from a movie called “War for the Planet of the Apes,” really?

Do you want thoughtful, steady-handed contemplation? Meditations on the nature of war, the corruptibility of man and beast alike, the darkness that lurks within? A slow-burn drama that recalls “Apocalypse Now,” perhaps?

Because to be honest, I just want to watch some apes fight. I’d like them to fight humans, preferably, but other apes will do in a pinch.

The “Planet of the Apes” series, an occasional big-screen presence since the classic 1968 film, was rebooted in 2011 with the entertaining (if uneven) “Rise of the Planet of the Apes.” That film’s sequel, 2014’s “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes,” was an excellent film, full of compelling action and tension. It was a film that packed emotional punch, while still making room for an ape to fire an automatic rifle while riding a war horse; in other words, it never took itself too seriously.

The same cannot be said of “War for the Planet of the Apes.” In fact, taking itself too seriously is the hallmark of the latest film.

I don’t want to sound like a curmudgeon, here; I know that the line between the blockbuster and the arthouse has become increasingly blurred. “Mad Max: Fury Road” is perhaps the ultimate example of this — a movie that was as careful, artful and thoughtful as any prestige drama, yet simultaneously visceral and thrilling. In many ways, that’s my preferred cinematic sweet spot.

“War for the Planet of the Apes” does not do that; by and large, it’s missing the action. Two years after the events of the previous film, most of humanity has been wiped out by the Simian Flu (which simultaneously aided the evolution of the apes); remaining humans and risen apes are at constant war. When ape leader Caesar (played in motion-capture and voice by Andy Serkis) and his compound are found and attacked by a ruthless human military type known as the Colonel (Woody Harrelson), the ape leads a small band of allies to try and reestablish control of their world.

That may sound like a solid premise; in practice, it’s a slog of a prison-escape film. The early scenes have plenty of promise, implying that the film to follow will be something of an ’80s-style war drama ... you know, just one with apes. Instead, the film takes misstep after misstep — adding a young human (Amiah Miller) to the party without exploring that development, throwing in a wildly ineffective comic-relief ape (Steve Zahn), padding its runtime with interminable sequences of no import — en route to an out-of-nowhere ending.

It feels like little more than a side quest to the series we have been watching — and while it diverts it also ignores the factors that made those prior films work. Perhaps some will be engaged by this turn; I would remind them that we are fundamentally watching a movie about talking apes. Let’s not take things too seriously, all right?

*    *    *

Speaking of films I enjoyed less than most critics: “The Big Sick,” which opened locally on two screens last Friday, gets a proper wide release starting today. The film is the mostly-true story of Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon’s relationship; the couple, who hosted a long-running podcast together, co-wrote the film. (Nanjiani stars as himself; Zoe Kazan plays Gordon.) Early in their relationship, Gordon was placed in a medically induced coma due to a mysterious illness; while she was unconscious, Nanjiani bonded with her parents at her bedside, wrestling with his own family’s wishes that he marry a Pakistani woman. The film is very good — don’t let my intro to this section convince you otherwise — and achingly honest, a rarity in romantic comedies. Frequently funny and effortlessly touching, it stands as a fine example of the form. I’m not sure it is deserving of the somewhat rapturous praise it has received to date; there’s something about this story that is more functional as a tale than as a film. Nevertheless, it’s an ideal date movie and a refreshing take on an increasingly stale genre.

*    *    *

The Montage: After years of staring off camera, we’re finally going to meet Pittsburgh Dad’s family. “Street Light Stories,” a 12-minute short by local filmmaker Chris Preksta, takes the hit YouTube series beyond its regular confines, expanding the familiar (to us yinzers) world of the lovable character. The short will be posted online next Wednesday, but don’t wait: Two screenings of the film are set for this Tuesday night at Century Square Luxury Cinemas, each followed by a question-and-answer session with Preksta and star Curt Wootton. Click here for more info ... If you see frantic, roving film crews this weekend, don’t be alarmed; the 48-Hour Film Project is underway. Shorts will be filmed this weekend and screened next weekend; a showcase of the best entries is set for Aug. 11 at The Oaks Theater. Click here for more info ... The National Theatre Live production of “Salomé” will be screened at the Tull Family Theater in Sewickley this Thursday night; click here for more info.


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