'War' is battle for an ape's soul

By Tom Von Malder | Oct 26, 2017
Photo by: 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment The ape Caesar is played by Andy Serkis via motion capture. The trilogy ends with "War for the Planet of the Apes."

Owls Head — War for the Planet of the Apes (20th Century Fox, Blu-ray or standard DVD, PG-13, 140 min.). This is the third film in a remarkable reimagining of the "Planet of the Apes" saga. Each film has gotten better, both due to the technical advancements in computer imaging and the increasing "humanity," for lack of a better word, in the development of ape leader, Caesar (motion-capture acting by Andy Serkis of the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy). They may be apes on the screen, but they have become characters the viewer really cares about, and this film is all about the battle for Caesar's soul, as he goes after the human Colonel (Woody Harrelson) with revenge in his heart.

Despite the war, so far Caesar has been a force for peace, having taken down Koba, who started a war against humans in the previous film, "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes." After the film opens with human soldiers attacking the apes in the woods, Caesar allows four soldiers and one ape "donkey" (a term for apes who work for the human military) to go as a peace gesture, only to be betrayed. When the humans next attack, led by the Colonel, Caesar suffers horrific losses, such that when he sends his tribe off to find their new home, he instead heads north to find, and kill, the Colonel -- something Koba would have done.

Despite wanting to track down the Colonel by himself, Caesar is joined by three of his simian coalition, including Maurice (one of several name nods to the original 1968 film, "Planet of the Apes") and Luca. Along the way, their number is increased by two: a young human girl who cannot speak (played by Amiah Miller, she later is named Nova, again a homage to the original film); and a lone ape, who goes by the name Bad Ape (Steve Zahn via motion capture). Both play major roles in the film's resolution. Nova represents the third phase of the Simian Flu -- 15 years ago, an experiment gone wrong gave rise to a species of intelligent apes and destroyed most of humanity via the Simian Flu, which has now mutated to ironically deprive humans of speech and some of their intelligence -- while Bad Ape is familiar with the camp/mine where the Colonel's forces have gathered. Upon his arrival, Caesar learns the worst has happened, his tribe has been captured and is being forced to build a wall.

The first hour of the film is a slow build-up with many character beats that will pay off later. The film becomes exceptional during the prison sequences and the escape plotting. One will find echoes of "Apocalypse Now," "The Bridge On the River Kwai" (whose source novel was written by Pierre Boulle, author of "Planet of the Apes") and even a Christ-like journey, but they usually are just shadings used by co-writers Matt Reeves (also the director) and Mark Bomback.

Bonus features include 10 deleted scenes (23:03), with optional audio commentary by Reeves, who also does an audio commentary for the feature film. Eight of the deleted scenes show the actors in their motion-capture suits without the final digital makeup. Two of the scenes give Preacher (Gabriel Chavarria), one of the soldiers Caesar spared, more interaction with Caesar and there is a key scene in which the Colonel confesses to Caesar that he killed Malcolm (Jason Clarke in "Dawn"), after Malcolm praised Caesar as being a great leader.  Solid interviews fill the making-of feature (29:38), while "All About Caesar" (12:40) discusses the emotional connections. There also is a look at WETA pushing the digital boundaries (10:36), as well as the music during a scoring session (6:20) and a concept art gallery. Two other fine extras are "Apes: The Meaning of It All" (20:15), which looks at the original five films, and "Apes Saga: A Homage" (7:48), which points out the many references in the new trilogy to the earlier films. Grade: film 4 stars; extras 3.5 stars

Rating guide: 5 stars = classic; 4 stars = excellent; 3 stars = good; 2 stars = fair; dog = skip it

Annabelle: Creation (Warner Bros., Blu-ray or standard DVD, R, 109 min.). The prologue tells how doll maker Samuel (Anthony LaPaglia) and his wife Esther (Miranda Otto) lost their young daughter Bee (Samara Lee) in a truck accident. After the film jumps forward 12 years, the viewer learns how evil came to inhabit the Annabelle doll. That doll was one of the accursed artifacts shown in the first "The Conjuring" film, director by James Wan, who is a producer here. The idea was that the artifacts could be spun off into a series of movies about each one. In 2014, "Annabelle," a less successful movie, was the first. Upcoming is "The Nun," which is alluded to in this film as well.

In this film's present time, Samuel and his invalid wife agree to let a nun (Stephanie Sigman as Sister Charlotte) and six orphaned girls move in with them, so the group does not have to be separated after their previous orphanage was shut down. The girls have fallen into two groups: an older group of four; and Linda (Lulu Wilson) and Janice (Talitha Bateman), the two youngest who have pledged to be sisters forever. Janice is suffering from polio and needs a crutch in order to get around.

As soon as they move into the sprawling house though, little strange things start happening, like doors opening by themselves and "find me" notes popping up. Bee's "forbidden" bedroom door is found unlocked and open one night by Janice, with the Annabelle doll shut behind a door that is plastered with pages from the Bible. The build-up is rather slow until the first real creep-out that happens 49 minutes in and lasts three minutes. From then on, the situation in the house goes downhill fast, including a couple of ultra-creepy, bone-cracking sequences. One of the best scare sequences takes place in the barn.

Bonus features include audio commentary by director David F. Sandberg, who also gives a wonderful, informative look at directing (42:21) for those who might be interested in directing themselves, using his own efforts on this film as examples. Sandberg says he always wished he had something like that when he was growing up. There also are 15 deleted scenes with connecting commentary, with three related to an excised fact that Sister Charlotte once had a son who died at age 7. Wan and others discuss the Warrens' haunted artifacts in "The Conjuring Universe" (4:51), and there are two short films, the very effective "Attic Panic" (3:10) and "Coffer" (3:09), which inspired portions of this film. Grade: film 3 stars; extras 3.5 stars.

The Old Dark House (1932, Cohen Film Collection, Blu-ray or standard DVD, NR, 72 min.). This thriller, made by director James Whale between his classics, "Frankenstein" and "Bride of Frankenstein," and also starring Boris Karloff in a wordless performance, has been rescued from near destruction and is presented in the new 4K digital restoration. Based on J.B. Priestley's popular novel, "Benighted," and featuring a cast of standout British actors, Whale's film puts a spin on horror film conventions by adding black humor.

It is the proverbial dark and stormy night when three travelers, Philip Waverton (Raymond Massey of "Abe Lincoln in Illinois," "East of Eden"), his wife Margaret (Gloria Stuart of "Titanic," Whale's "The Invisible Man") and their friend Penderal (Melvyn Douglas of "Ninotchka," "Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House"), arrive at the isolated Femm mansion, landslides having blocked the road out in both directions. Modern audiences may notice that apparently the opening of "The Rocky Horror Picture Show" is a homage to "The Old Dark House," complete to the strange butler opening the door. In this case, the butler is mute Morgan (Karloff, who appeared in both of Whale's Frankenstein movies). Before the night is over, Morgan will get drunk and make unwanted, aggressive advances on Margaret (who just happened to slip into a slinky party dress because the clothes she was wearing got soaked).

Their hosts are the eccentric siblings Horace (Ernest Thesiger of "Bride of Frankenstein") and Rebecca Femm (Eva Moore). Rebecca's greeting line is: "No beds. No beds. You can't have beds." The two spar over religion at dinner, and Thesinger is great at portraying panic, when it is revealed there are other Femms upstairs, including one who is locked away because he tried to burn the house down (Bremer Wills as Saul Femm). However, first there are two more drop-ins from the storm, Sir William Porterhouse (Charles Laughton of "Mutiny on the Bounty," "Jamaica Inn" in his first Hollywood film), who has purchased his title, and his "paid" companion, chorus girls Gladys Perkins (Lillian Bond of "The Picture of Dorian Gray," "China Seas")

Whales and screenwriter Benn W. Levy get a lot of humor and horror out of the eccentric characters and sneak in bits about the British class system and religion. Surprising horror bits include Rebecca's facial reflection distorted in a couple of mirrors and Morgan lurching after Margaret. Then, there is the  funny, out-of-nowhere scene of Margaret making shadow shapes with her hands. The film's plot may be thin, but it is all about the atmosphere and acting.

The film comes with two audio commentaries: one by actress Stuart; and one by Whale biographer James Curtis. There also is a conversation (14:45) between Dean Otto and Sara Karloff, Boris' daughter who was born after the film was made. She discusses her father's early career and the making of this film. Curtis Harrington, a director who met with Whale a couple of times, explains his efforts to save the film (7:08). Grade: film and extras 3.25 stars

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