Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes

Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes

Posted on May 9, 2024 at 11:37 am

B-
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi violence/action
Profanity: Brief strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Extended and intense peril and violence, beating, sling-shots, taser-like spears, explosion, flood, marauders, characters injured and killed
Diversity Issues: A metaphorical theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: May 10, 2024
Copyright 20th Century 2024K

Know going in that this is the kind of movie where the humans are mute, cognitively impaired, and yet the main human character wears tailored pants and a woven shirt that look like they came from the mall. This should not be a surprise as it is also the kind of movie there the title is, at best, paradoxical, as a planet is bigger than a kingdom and in any even the kingdom in this story is only a small part of the planet. So shouldn’t it be “Kingdom ON the Planet of the Apes?” Of all the suspension of disbelief required for the film, the idea that complex machinery would operate as intended after hundreds of years — well, that idea procured intended laughs in Woody Allen’s “Sleeper” and unintended laughs in “Battlefield Earth.”

Know, too, that, for anyone who is trying to keep track of the “how does ‘Tokyo Drift’ fit into the chronology”-type questions about the original series of films, the television show, and the Tim Burton-and-after movies, this one takes place a long time after the death of legendary character Cesar, who sacrificed himself, and, possibly, before the Charlton Heston original. Maybe.

Noa (Owen Teague) is a young, male ape who lives in a gentle clan with his parents and two best friends. We first see them preparing for a coming-of-age ritual. Each of them must find an eagle’s egg (but always leaving one in the nest), and bring it back safely. The clan is centered around their trained eagles, and Noa’s stern father is their leader. Noa struggles to get his father’s approval. We see that they have some signs of what we think of as human civilization, in addition to the rituals. They have built some simple structures as homes, they ride horses, they obey the rules of the clan, and they have adornments and some tools and simple weapons, like slingshots. Also, as mentioned above, that most human of attributes, daddy issues.

A marauding group of apes arrive, with more powerful weapons, including spears with taser-like points. They destroy the compound, kill Noa’s father, and capture everyone else, except for Noa, who manages to escape, vowing to find his clan and get revenge. He meets up with Raca (the deep, kind voice of Peter Macon), a follower of the lessons of Cesar. And they meet up with a human woman they call Nova (Freya Allan) — cue the jokes about how humans are slow-witted and smell bad.

They try to drop Nova off with a group of humans (note: none wearing pants and a shirt), but the same marauding apes arrive to capture the humans like cowboys capture mustangs or, in “The Time Machine,” the Morlocks capture the Eloi. It turns out Nova has some secrets.

She and Noa are themselves captured by the apes, they find themselves in the kingdom of Proximus (Kevin Durand), a tyrant who, like the male humans of our time, is obsessed with Ancient Rome. They live on what was once a human stronghold, and Proximus is determined to break into the vault, to get access to whatever it was the humans were so intent on protecting.

I suspect we may hear some people claim that this film is intended as a metaphor to illuminate some of the most divisive topics of our era — colonialism, immigration, xenophobia, the way we tell our history. That gives this film too much credit, but the way both Raca and Proximus claim to be the true heirs of Cesar’s authority, with very different interpretations of his message, should resonate with viewers.

We are mostly there for the special effects and action scenes, though, and those are vivid and effective. The settings are stunning and the motion capture and CGI are next-level, giving the ape characters real weight and their expressions, well, expressive. As one of the most enduring series in history moves, potentially, toward the time of the very first film, the questions remain: whether humans and apes can find a way to co-exist, whether technology can advance without causing great harm and existential threats, and whether humans or apes can ever find a way to overcome fear and greed to work together for the common good.

Parents should know that this movie includes extended peril and violence. Characters are injured and killed and there are some graphic and disturbing images. Characters use brief strong language (a human teaches it to the apes, of course).

Family discussion: Why did the clans have such different cultures?

If you like this, try: the other movies in the series and the original films with Roddy McDowell, Kim Hunter, and Charlton Heston

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Bullet Train

Bullet Train

Posted on August 2, 2022 at 9:57 am

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for strong and bloody violence, pervasive language, and brief sexuality
Profanity: Very strong language
Violence/ Scariness: Constant very graphic peril and violence with spurting blood and many murders, guns, knives, poison, fire, crash, snake
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: August 5, 2022

Copyright 2022 Sony
The Japanese bullet train goes 200 miles per hour. Its namesake movie goes even faster. On the train is a briefcase stuffed with millions of dollars and a passenger list that includes an assortment of thieves and assassins and the kidnapped son of a crime kingpin called White Death. Action fans will understand that the over-the-top violence is exaggerated as an R-rated version of Looney Tunes, expertly crafted and often hilarious.

Brad Pitt is sensational as an all-purposes soldier of fortune trying to find something simpler and less violent than his previous jobs. His handler, Maria, tells him this is just the job for him. All he has to do is get on the train, grab the briefcase, and get off. She gives him the code name Ladybug. This is either to cheer him up or add some snark because he insists he is unlucky (as he steps into a puddle) and in Japan the ladybug is a symbol of good luck. Or both. Either way, that is the only name we know for him, an emotionally exhausted man described by another character as looking like every homeless white guy, trying to do better without having decided what better means.

At the train station he opens a locker to pick up the equipment Maria has left for him, but he decides to leave the gun behind. And he boards the train, reciting therapeutic mantras to remind himself to stay calm, determined to “put peace into the world” while all he has too do is steal a briefcase. The trick, though, is that it already belongs to someone to whom it is also valuable, and several other people who are equally experienced in smash and grab, emphasis on the smash, would also like to have it, too. There are assassins from all over, a veritable It’s a Small World of assassins.

I really want to avoid spoilers here, so I will not disclose the superstars who show up in small, funny cameos (you will probably recognize the voice of the Oscar-winner on the other side of the phone calls with Ladybug), the actor we don’t see without a mask until the last act, or some of the funniest twists. I’ll just say that stuntman-turned director David Leitch (“John Wick,” “Atomic Blonde”) is as good as it gets in fight scenes and these are a blast, and that there are some well-chosen needle drop songs on the soundtrack. The bullet train setting is also a lot of fun, with a quiet car, a car for families with young children, and a bar car, and stops of only one minute at each station.

I will, however, take a moment to discuss Brad Pitt, who shows once again that he never brings less than the best to every role. No one is better at precisely calibrating his own movie star charisma and here he plays off of it to hilarious effect. The acting in the stunt scenes is as important as the punches. As we have seen in Tarantino and some other films, countering shocking, graphic, brutality with transgressive but workmanlike casualness can be very funny. The entire cast is excellent, including Brian Tyree Henry and Aaron Taylor-Johnson as “the twins,” the assassins delivering (or trying to) the White Death’s son (Logan Lerman channeling Jared Leto) and the briefcase full of ransom money, Bad Bunny as a Mexican drug cartel operative, and Hiroyuki Sanada, Zazie Beetz as characters I won’t spoil.

Buckle up, everyone. This is what they’re talking about when they use the term “wild ride.”

Parents should know that this movie is non-stop action with guns, knives, poison, fire, a deadly snake, crashes, and many brutal and grisly deaths and disturbing and graphic images. A child is badly injured (but survives). Characters are hired assassins and crime kingpins and their henchmen. They use very strong language. There is a brief scene of nudity and sex.

Family discussion: Who are we rooting for in this story and how can you tell? What do you think of the Thomas the Tank Engine approach to classifying humanity? Why don’t we ever learn their real names?

If you like this, try: the book by Kotaro Isaka, the “John Wick” series, “Kill Bill,” “Boss Mode,” and “Shoot ’em Up” You might also enjoy a less violent film involving a crime and a train, “$” with Warren Beatty and Goldie Hawn.

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NOPE

NOPE

Posted on July 20, 2022 at 3:58 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for language throughout and some violence/bloody images
Profanity: Very strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol, vaping
Violence/ Scariness: Extended science fiction peril and violence, characters injured and killed, very graphic and bloody images, jump scares
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: July 22, 2022

Copyright Universal 2022
Yep. This is one scary movie. Jordan Peele’s new film, “NOPE” does not have the depth of cultural commentary of his Oscar-winning script for “Get Out” or his follow-up, “Us,” but it is a smart, scary movie with a strong storyline, great performances, and clever details. Plus, it’s shot on IMAX and Peele, cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema (“Interstellar,” “Tenet,” “Ad Astra”), and production designer Ruth De Jong (“Twin Peaks”) know how to fill the screen and use every bit of it to tell the story.

OJ Haywood (Daniel Kaluuya of “Get Out” and “Judas & The Black Messiah”) is a horse trainer, like his father, grand-father, and several greats. According to his sister Emerald (Keke Palmer of “Hustlers,” “Lightyear,” and “Akeelah and the Bee”), their family goes back to the very first moments of moving pictures in 1878, the two-second series of cards showing a man riding a horse. The family business is training horses for movies and television.

After a brief, terrifying preface on the set of a 90s sitcom, we see OJ and his father Otis (Keith David) working on the ranch, talking about the importance of making sure an upcoming job goes well and annoyed that Emerald has not shown up. Then something strange happens. There are disturbing sounds, like the zings and thwacks of arrows. The sound design by Johnnie Burn is creepy, evocative, and never less than outstanding. A key on a ring pierces a horse’s rump. Shrapnel hits and kills Otis.

The ranch is isolated, but nearby is a small cowboy theme park owned by former child star Ricky “Jupe” Park (Steven Yuen of “Minari”) and his wife, Amber (Wrenn Schmidt of “For All Mankind”). Pressed for money, OJ has been selling horses to Jupe, hoping to be able to buy them back some day. But Jupe wants to buy the entire ranch.

Meanwhile, both are beginning to be aware that the strange electrical disturbances and glimpses of something in the sky may be from another world. More important, Ricky, OJ, and Emerald see this as a potential for profit. Jupe wants to make the extraterrestrials an attraction at the park. If OJ and Emerald can get good, clear photos of aliens, they can get on Oprah!

Yeah, they’re going to need a lot more than a bag of Reese’s Pieces if they’re looking to find a cute little ET for Oprah.

That scary preface I mentioned comes back. Something went horribly wrong at a live taping of a silly sitcom starring a little Asian kid and a chimp. That child grew up to be Jupe. While he speaks smoothly about the “SNL” sketch based on the incident (Chris Kattan as the chimp!) and is happy to point out artifacts from his past, a theme about the relationship between animals and the humans who think they can tame them appears as unsettlingly as the odd sounds we hear. We see it again as the horse named Lucky misbehaves at that crucial job OJ’s father was concerned about. Or rather, the humans misbehave, giving an inadequate safety briefing. OJ mumbles until Emerald arrives and her presentation is more about her than it is about the horse. It is not a coincidence that both of these problems occur in the highly artificial performative environment of a show, the most heightened version of human life with the strange sounds and hot, bright lights and a deep gulf between reality and fantasy. There’s nice brief moment when someone reacts to OJ’s name as though he’s connected to OJ Simpson (it stands for Otis Jr.).

This ties in with the idea that the first reaction OJ, Emerald, and Jupe have to the idea of aliens is to make a show of them. How we present ourselves and how we are perceived is core to this story, going back to Emerald’s diversion in what is supposed to be a safety briefing to a description of her ancestor, the jockey in the prototype for moving images, where the horse’s name was identified but not the name of the human riding him. At June’s little theme park, Emerald inadvertently photobombs a group of visitors. And later, two more characters are added to the effort to document the aliens, Angel Torres (Brandon Perea) a blond-tipped sales and installation specialist from a big box store who sells surveillance cameras to the Haywoods and wants to find out what they want to surveil, and the fabulously named Antlers Holst, fabulously played by Michael Wincott, a cinematographer artiste who like to “make one for them, one for me” and considers capturing images without electricity a creative challenge.

There are a lot of ideas here, including some sly digs at Peele’s own industry that could fit in a Key and Peele sketch plus a dazzling series of visual images. The air dancers the Haywoods bring to the ranch, the wonderfully imagined, just tacky enough details of the theme park, the connection between Jupe’s cowboy hat blown away by the ship and the ship itself are all brilliantly designed. Every performance is superb. Schmidt and Yeun make us wish for an entire other story about their relationship. Kaluuya continues to be one of the most fascinating actors working today, bringing a rare sense of thoughtful gravity and stillness to the screen. Keke Palmer, always great, gives her best performance yet as we see Emerald become more grounded, more fierce, more aware of her connection to the brother who stayed when she left.

There are too many ideas, too many things to see to come together with the impact “Get Out” and “Us” had. But it is wonderfully entertaining and provocative enough to spark what I’m sure will be some fascinating online speculation, and to add to Peele’s reputation as one of the most significant filmmakers of his generation.

Parents should know that this film includes tense and scary sci-fi peril and violence with some graphic images. Characters are injured and killed. At one point in my notes I just wrote: “BLOOD!” There are jump scares and fake-outs. Characters use very strong language.

Family discussion: How does the relationship between OJ and Emerald change? Why are the sections of the movie named after the horses?

If you like this, try: “Get Out,” “Us,” “Coherence,” and the various versions — except the most recent — of “Invasion of the Body Snatchers”

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Moonfall

Moonfall

Posted on February 3, 2022 at 5:30 pm

B-
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for violence, disaster action, strong language, and some drug use
Profanity: A handfuls of bad words
Alcohol/ Drugs: Medication and marijuana
Violence/ Scariness: Extended and intense natural and unnatural disaster, mayhem, floods, earthquakes, looting, guns, suicide, explosions, monster, sacrifice, characters injured and killed
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: February 4, 2022

Copyright Lionsgate 2021
If movies had IQs, this one would be in the low double digits; it may even leave the viewer’s IQ a couple of points lower. But, hey, this is a Roland Emmerich end-of-the-world special effects extravaganza and it has tsunamis and looting and nuclear bombs, and chases and explosions and more explosions, so if that’s your jam, by all means go for it.

And you can probably preserve those IQ points by just not paying too much attention to what there is of a plot or to some weird elements like the unnecessary reference to “our friends at SpaceX” and a character wondering “What would Elon do?” There’s an endorsement of religion, perhaps to counter a plot turn that undermines some core beliefs of some faiths. A moment that is supposed to be tender and heartwarming as characters reconcile in the face of mass extermination is awkward and random. And the movie does not seem to know how to make the most of genuine big movie star and brilliant actress Halle Berry, stuck much of the time with exposition, cheering other characters on, and wrinkling her lovely brow to show concern.

This is one of those movies where a “fringe” (other people might use the word “crackpot”) “scientist” (not if your definition includes peer review) is the only person who has figured out that the moon is hollow because it is mechanical, constructed, as in not natural. That is space-obsessed KC Houseman (John Bradley), who has a cat named Fuzz Aldren, an English accent, and a tiny following in conspiracy-minded corners of the internet.

What the actual scientists have begun to figure out, and which KC believes confirms his theories, is that the moon’s orbit is shifting and this is deeply concerning because it moderates our home planet’s wobble on its axis, leading to a relatively stable climate and causes the tides. So if it gets out of whack, even a little, it affects everything on earth, from our days and months to our oceans. And if it gets too much out of whack, it collides with us, causing massive tsunamis and earthquakes and ultimately killing everyone. Furthermore, “city-sized pieces of moon debris” hitting the earth could destroy everything.

In other words, it’s a big deal and someone better figure out a way to stop it. In other other words, this is basically “Don’t Look Up” without the satire. That means that most of the people in any kind of position of power either lie (nice cameo by Donald Sutherland who wisely says his lines and gets out), dither around, throw nuclear missiles at everything or or duck out. Most of the people not in power descend into “everyone for himself” chaos. So only our scrappy little group working outside the system can save the day. They do accept help, though, from techies, scientists, and the military.

That team consists of our fringe “scientist,” and astronauts Jo (Halle Berry) and Brian (Patrick Wilson), one the closest of colleagues but estranged for ten years following a failed mission where their colleague was killed. We go back and forth between their mission to somehow knock the moon back on course and the perils faced by their children trying to get to Colorado, which for some reason has been picked as a safe place. That’s Brian’s college-age son (Charlie Plummer) with his mother, her Lexus-dealer second husband (Michael Pena) and their young daughters and Jo’s young son and his nanny. I did enjoy the Roche limit developments that took advantage of the gravitational changes as the moon approached earth.

The sketchy storyline borrows shamelessly from “Superman,” “Battleship Earth,” and “Contact” without adding anything new. Explosion movies don’t need to be smart but they shouldn’t be this dumb. “Everything we thought we knew about the universe is out the window,” a character says. Maybe they should have thrown this script out of the window at the same time.

Parents should know that this film has end-of-the-world scenes of massive natural and un-natural disasters, guns, suicide, looting, sad deaths including a parent who sacrifices himself to save his child, a handful of bad words, marijuana and medication.

Family discussion: Who would you see if you were interacting with the AI and why?

If you like this, try: “2012,” “Independence Day,” and “The Tomorrow War”

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Dune

Dune

Posted on October 21, 2021 at 5:21 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for some disturbing images, sequences of strong violence, and suggestive material
Profanity: Mild language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Sci-fi drug use
Violence/ Scariness: Extended peril and violence, monsters, guns, knives, many characters injured and killed including major characters and sad death of a parent, some scary and graphic images
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: October 22, 2021
Date Released to DVD: January 10, 2022

Copyright Warner Brothers 2021
If some of the elements of “Dune” feel familiar to you, it is because the book series it is based on was published in the 1960s and epics have been drawing from it ever since, just as it drew on Hero With a Thousand Faces legends of young heroes up against impossible odds and evil villains with the help of wise counselors and beautiful romantic partners, and sociopolitical history. If it feels incomplete to you it is because it ends not in the middle of the story but at the end of the beginning; it is something of an origin story that just begins to set up the bigger story to come. If it feels confusing to you it is because you have not read the long, dense, intricate books, in which case I suggest this very helpful background from New York Magazine’s Vulture website. It might also be because you saw the cult-y earlier movie version from cult-y director David Lynch. The one with Sting.

But while you may be pondering those ifs, you will be stunned and amazed by the astonishing worlds on the screen (please see it on IMAX if you can do so safely), one of the most remarkable examples of cinematic world-building magic ever made, thanks to “Arrival” duo director Denis Villeneuve and art director Patrice Vermette.

Timothée Chalamet plays Paul Atreides, the son of a powerful Duke (Oscar Isaac) who is loyal to the emperor and his beloved concubine, Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson), who is a member of a group called Bene Gesserit. They are a secretive, nun-like group with magical powers. Remember how Obi-wan Kenobi told the imperial guard “These are not the droids you are looking for” and the guard bought it? The Bene Gesserit has powers like that only to do it they have to use a low-pitched growly voice.

So Paul comes from political and financial power on one side and mystical power on the other, quite a potent mix and as a teenager he is still sorting it all out, especially some weird and possibly predictive dreams he has been having.

The emperor makes a controversial decision to remove one of the Duke’s rival houses, House Harkonnen, from the extremely lucrative desert planet Arrakis, where they have accumulated incalculable wealth from the planet’s precious resource, called spice, by exploiting the environment and abusing the planet’s residents, the Fremen, who are now mostly hiding out literally underground. He orders the Duke to take over, and the Duke and his family dutifully obey. Needless to say, House Harkonnen and its leader the Baron (Stellan Skarsgård in Jabba the Hutt mode) is angry. This means Paul has to contend with all the usual teenage angst and identity issues plus the angry Fremen and possibly some traitorous insiders.

A couple of other points: Arrakis has some indigenous animal life, including a cute mouse creature and some gigantic and extremely scary and lethal sand worms, with mouth-like openings the size of a circus tent. They are attracted to — of all things — rhythmic sounds, like…footsteps. And spice is extremely valuable and can turn users’ eyes blue.

Even if you are confused, you can still be drawn into the story because it is clear who the good and bad and good/bad characters are and who we are supposed to root for. And the visuals are so compelling that the confusing parts make us more curious than frustrated. It is overlong for an origin story, but made with so much thought and story-telling mastery that I’m confident the next chapter will be even better.

Parents should know that this film includes some mild language, some sexual references, and extended sometimes bloody violence including weapons and poison. Major characters are injured and killed, including a parent.

Family discussion: What historic events may have inspired this story? What elements of the story inspired later classic movies?

If you like this, try: The books by Frank Herbert and others like Stranger in a Strange Land and The Foundation Trilogy

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