Have You Seen… ‘Conquest of the Planet of the Apes’?

Film and TV you might not have checked out but really should…

Conquest of TPOTA

The inimitable Roddy McDowall as Caesar in ‘Conquest of the Planet of the Apes’ (image credit: 20th Century Fox, used for illustrative purposes only).

Year:  1972

Starring:  Roddy McDowall, Ricardo Montalban, Don Murray, Hari Rhodes, Natalie Trundy

Director:  J. Lee Thompson / written by:  Paul Dehn

What’s it about?

North America 1991 – sold into slavery like the rest of his kind, Caesar, the offspring of intelligent apes Cornelius and Zira, prepares to lead a revolt against his human masters…

In review

Taking place twenty years after the events of Escape from the Planet of the Apes, the fourth entry in the original Planet of the Apes film series sees Roddy McDowall once again returning to the franchise – this time as Caesar, the son of Cornelius (played of course by McDowall in Planet of the Apes and Escape from the Planet of the Apes) and Zira (Kim Hunter’s character in the previous Apes films) who was left in the care of circus owner, Armando (the late, great Ricardo Montalban).  Now fully grown, Caesar’s true nature as an intelligent ape is kept secret by Armando in a world where his simian brethren have been enslaved by man and under the cruel whip of their masters are trained and sold off as household servants and labourers.

Presenting a somewhat bleak scenario and with unrestrained parallels to slavery, racial prejudice and the indecency of those in power (the Watergate scandal unfolding at the time of the film’s release in June 1972), Conquest of the Planet of the Apes is arguably the strongest, darkest and most thematically interesting of the Apes sequels.  The rise of a police state and the depiction of unabashed cruelty paints an ugly picture of humankind, putting the viewer firmly on the side of the apes and invested in Caesar’s journey from slave to revolutionary.

Whilst Charlton Heston was the indisputable star of Planet of the Apes, it’s Roddy McDowall that carried the franchise forward and his performance in Conquest of the Planet of the Apes is the finest of the series – his whole career even – combined with the exemplary make-up design and Paul Dehn’s sharp script, McDowall tackles the part of Caesar with passion and conviction.  Supporting McDowall is Don Murray as the evil Governor Breck, whilst Ricardo Montalban reprises his Escape from the Planet of the Apes role as the benign Armando, proving that not all humans are brutal and unkind.  Rounding out the cast is Hari Rhodes as Breck’s aide, MacDonald – an African American who has some sympathy for the apes’ plight – and Natalie Trundy (who also appeared in Beneath the Planet of the Apes and Escape from the Planet of the Apes) as Caesar’s future mate, Lisa.

Working against technical and budgetary limitations, Conquest of the Planet of the Apes non-the-less boasts some simple but effective set design that’s bolstered by the use of exterior location shooting at Los Angeles’ Century City providing the film with an appropriately sterile, semi-futuristic look.  The Gestapo style costume design elements also help accentuate that sense of a near-totalitarian society.

The finale, where Caesar escapes interrogation and leads the apes in a revolt against their human overlords leads to an action-packed climax with a startling, yet poignant conclusion.  It also provoked controversy amongst 20th Century Fox executives, so alarmed by the level of violence in the original cut of Conquest of the Planet of the Apes that they demanded certain scenes be edited and for Caesar’s closing speech to be softened by the recording of additional lines by Roddy McDowall.  Thankfully the superior, unaltered version was restored for the film’s Blu-ray release.

Battle for the Planet of the Apes would bring the series to an entertaining close the following year but it’s the themes and Roddy McDowall’s performance that make Conquest of the Planet of the Apes a highlight of the series.

Geek fact!

Lou Wagner, Lucius in Planet of the Apes, cameos in Conquest of the Planet of the Apes as a chimpanzee restaurant server.

Also worth a look…

Battle for the Planet of the Apes : the final entry in the original Apes saga, which posits a more hopeful outcome where apes and humans may ultimately coexist peacefully.

Rise of the Planet of the Apes : the first instalment of the more recent Apes series, the Rupert Wyatt directed reboot of the franchise shares a similar premise to Conquest of the Planet of the Apes.

TV Review: ‘Disenchantment’ – Series Premiere

Matt Groening’s new animated comedy hits Netflix…

Disenchantment

How much trouble could a princess, an elf and a demon possible get into? Abbi Jacobsen leads the cast of ‘Disenchantment’ (image credit: Netflix, used for illustrative purposes only).

 

Spoiler-free review

Starring (voices):  Abbi Jacobsen, Eric Andre, Nat Faxon, John DiMaggio, Billy West, Tress MacNeille, Maurice LaMarche

Series created by:  Matt Groening & Josh Weinstein

Written by:  Matt Groening & Josh Weinstein / Episode directed by:  Dwayne Carey-Hill

What’s it about?

Misadventure awaits Princess Tiabeanie as she flees home with new companions Elfo the Elf and a demon named Luci in tow…

Episode review

The Simpsons and Futurama creator Matt Groening brings his newest animated comedy venture (co-created with Josh Weinstein) to Netflix, the ten-episode (or “chapter”) first season of Disenchantment.  In reverse of Futurama’s far future setting, Disenchantment is placed firmly in medieval fantasy and focuses on the card playing, beer-swilling and forthright Princess “Bean” Tiabeanie (Abbi Jacobsen) as she refuses to marry the dashing but virtually brain-dead Prince Guysbert and flees the alter in defiance of her father, King Zog (the unmistakable John DiMaggio – who previously voiced Futurama’s cantankerous robot, Bender), setting out in search of (mis)adventure with Luci (Eric Andre), her devilishly self-proclaimed ‘personal demon’ and exiled elf, Elfo (Nat Faxon).

An amusing, sometimes laugh-out-loud introduction, “A Princess, an Elf, and a Demon Walk Into a Bar” is perhaps a little overlong at 36 minutes but makes use of the time to establish the kingdom of Dreamland and provide the viewer with a good sense of what to expect from the series and its characters.  No doubt taking its cue from Monty Python and the Holy Grail, and appearing less of a simple Game of Thrones parody, Disenchantment pokes fun at the basic tropes of a medieval fantasy tale and makes for an easy watch thanks to its trio of enjoyable central characters.

The humour is a touch more adult than The Simpsons and Futurama but refrains from slipping into cruder more outrages territory covered by the likes of Family Guy, American Dad and Archer.  There are some really funny moments in here with Luci and Elfo getting the biggest share of the laughs – the latter’s stumble into a battle between armies of dwarfs and trolls a particularly hilarious highlight.

The vocal talent is enriched by the inclusion of Simpsons and Futurama veterans such as Billy West, Tress MacNeille and Emmy Award Winner Maurice LaMarche (who viewers of a certain age will fondly recall provided the voice of Brain in Pinky and the Brain) in addition to beloved British comedy actors Matt Berry and Noel Fielding in supporting roles.  The animation itself is polished and follows that familiar Groening style.

This being a Netflix production, Disenchantment is structured around the continuous narrative that can be both a blessing and a hindrance to streaming shows.  A comedy series, especially an animated one is more likely to benefit from self-contained single story episodes rather than the long-form storytelling of say, Luke Cage, Lost in Space or Altered Carbon so it remains to be seen if this proves to be successful or not.

The bottom line:  Disenchantment gets off to a fun, daft start with a solid set of central characters and laudable vocal talent.

All 10 episodes of Disenchantment season 1 are available to stream now via Netflix.

Film Review: ‘The Death of Superman’

Warner Bros Animation makes another attempt at adapting an iconic Superman story…

Death of Superman

The Man of Steel prepares to meet his doom in Warner Bros Animation’s ‘The Death of Superman’ (image credit: Warner Bros, used for illustrative purposes only).

Spoiler-free review

Starring (voices):  Jerry O’Connell, Rebecca Romijn, Rainn Wilson, Rosario Dawson, Nathan Fillion, Christopher Gorham, Matt Lanter, Shemar Moore, Jason O’Mara

Directed by:  Jake Castorena and Sam Liu / Written by: Peter Tomasi / 80 minutes

What’s it about?

Superman faces his greatest challenge when a mysterious and brutal creature arrives on Earth and begins tearing its way through Metropolis…

In review

After the lacklustre Superman: Doomsday (released in 2007), Warner Bros Animation takes another stab at adapting the iconic 1990’s DC Comics storyline – elements of which were also incorporated into Zack Snyder’s Batman v Superman.  This time WB is taking the same approach as Batman: The Dark Knight Returns by splitting the story into two parts, beginning with The Death of Superman and to be concluded in Reign of the Superman, which is due for release next year.

More satisfying than the aforementioned Doomsday, The Death of Superman is an enjoyable, albeit not totally perfect, entry in Warner Bros’ DC animated universe.  Written by comic book scribe Peter Tomasi (writer of the acclaimed DC Rebirth Superman series), the screenplay does a commendable job of streamlining– and in a few areas improve – the original comics storyline which had the luxury of several issues to expand into numerous sub-plots.  The result is a loose reinterpretation that focuses on the relationship between Clark Kent and Lois Lane, providing a solid emotional core that pays off when the Man of Steel is faced against Doomsday – the powerful and unstoppable destructive force that smashes its way through Metropolis.

It’s a little slow and uneventful to begin with but once Doomsday arrives and the tension begins to build it picks up the pace and becomes more engaging, the final third largely a prolonged (and quite bloody, this isn’t one for younger viewers) battle between Superman and his titanic foe.  That was the only real highlight of Superman: Doomsday and directors Jake Castorena and Sam Liu deliver some exciting and impactful action scenes that rival the 2007 film.

One key improvement made by Tomasi’s script (which drops in some neat references to Superman: The Movie and the 1966 Batman television series) is an increased and more integral role for the Justice League and whilst this is still Superman’s story, there’s some fun and insightful interaction between the various team members, with wisecracking exchanges between Green Lantern and the Flash adding a dash of humour whilst Superman and Wonder Woman open up as they contemplate their past relationship.  The team’s failure to halt Doomsday’s rampage raises the stakes and adds to the sense of impending doom making the final showdown all the more intense.

The voice cast is very good, Jerry O’Connell is a strong and reassuring Superman with a more grounded and vulnerable approach to Clark Kent, Rebecca Romijn (Mystique in Fox’s original X-Men trilogy) brings a warmth and determination to Lois Lane and The Office and Star Trek: Discovery star Rainn Wilson delivers a spirited performance as Lex Luthor, infusing him with the right measure of arrogance and menace, although Clancy Brown is still arguably the definitive choice.  Justice League voice artists including Jason O’Mara, Rosario Dawson and Nathan Fillion (Batman, Wonder Woman and Green Lantern, respectively) reprise their roles as the various DC heroes whilst Black Lightning’s Cress Williams is a welcome addition as John Henry Irons – a character that as fans know plays a big part in the “Reign of the Supermen” arc.

Visually, The Death of Superman is decent if a bit unremarkable – character designs are generally strong (adopting the same anime-esque style of previous releases such as Justice League: War and Justice League: Throne of Atlantis) but environments are pretty sparse and lack detail.

The Death of Superman doesn’t evoke that more immersive and cinematic feel of The Dark Knight Returns and that stops it from fully living up to its potential.  Perhaps this might have been achieved by having it be a standalone project (with a slightly bigger budget) rather than incorporating it into the continuity of the main DC animated films (established in 2014’s Justice League: War), or maybe it’s because the source material is just not as strong or as nuanced as Frank Miller’s seminal Batman tale – that’s all a matter of perspective and open up for debate but as is, The Death of Superman is a worthwhile watch if only at least to erase disappointing memories of Doomsday.

The bottom line:  The Death of Superman is a more successful version of the classic Superman story that although falling short of greatness is non-the-less an enjoyable watch and superior to WB Animation’s previous attempt.

The Death of Superman is available on Blu-ray, DVD and digital download now.  Reign of the Superman will be released in 2019.

Film Review: ‘Ant-Man and the Wasp’

Paul Rudd is once again amongst the ants as he suits up for Marvel’s ‘Ant-Man’ sequel… 

Ant-Man & Wasp

Paul Rudd and Evangeline Lilly return in Marvel Studios’ ‘Ant-Man and the Wasp’ (image credit: Marvel Studios/Disney, used for illustrative purposes only).

 Spoiler free review

Starring:  Paul Rudd, Evangeline Lilly, Michael Douglas, Michael Pena, Hannah John-Kamen, Laurence Fishburne, Michelle Pfeiffer

Directed by:  Peyton Reed / Written by: Chris McKenna, Erik Sommers, Paul Rudd, Andrew Barrer & Gabriel Farrari / 118 minutes

What’s it about?

Under house arrest after joining Captain America’s fight against Tony Stark’s Iron Man, Scott Lang finds he must become Ant-Man again and team-up with Hope Van Dyne – now the Wasp – when Hank Pym discovers a way to rescue his wife from the Quantum Realm…

In review

Following its U.S. release in July, Marvel’s Ant-Man and the Wasp has finally arrived in U.K. cinemas.  The sequel to 2015’s Ant-Man, Ant-Man and the Wasp provides essentially more of the same but is no less enjoyable for it.  Picking up two years after the events of Captain America: Civil War (and taking place prior to Avengers: Infinity War), we’re reintroduced to ex-con turned superhero Scott Lang, who has been sentenced to house arrest after siding with Captain America against Iron Man and the rest of the pro-Sokovia Accord heroes.  Days away from the end of his sentence, Lang focuses on being the best father he can be to his daughter Cassie and staying out of trouble.  But as Lang starts to experience strange ‘dreams’ about the Quantum Realm he finds himself reaching out to Hank Pym and Hope Van Dyne – currently fugitives from the law – who believe they’ve found a way to rescue Pym’s wife, Janet from the sub-molecular dimension.

Ant-Man director Peyton Reed returns to helm this second instalment and together with the terrific cast delivers a fun popcorn adventure that has the same mix of action, humour and heart that entertained audiences the first time around.  It’s scale is more confined than the epic, galaxy-spanning Infinity War but a refreshing change of pace in the wake of that cinematic behemoth.  That’s not to say that Ant-Man and the Wasp doesn’t have some great set-pieces and Reed is once again skilful in staging inventive action scenes that make the most out of repeatedly shrinking/enlarging people – and objects – without it ever becoming tiresome or gimmicky.  Yet, at its core Ant-Man and the Wasp is a story about family and the lengths people will go to for those they care about which is something everyone can relate to and become invested in.

Paul Rudd confidently reprises the role of Scott Lang/Ant-Man, his playful approach to the part enhanced by the charm of his relationship with Cassie and the rapport he has with Abby Rider Forston.  Let’s not forget that this is called Ant-Man and the Wasp though and following through on the promise of Ant-Man’s post-credits scene, Evangeline Lilly is offered equal opportunity to get in on the action as Hope Van Dyne suits up as the Wasp and there are many great scenes for her, including a nifty kitchen-based fight sequence.  Lilly and Rudd share good chemistry as well and the pair really do feel like a team, their talents better utilised together than apart.  Michael Douglas also makes a welcome return as Hank Pym adding a cantankerous yet fatherly dynamic to the team.

Michael Pena’s Luis was Ant-Man’s secret weapon with numerous memorable comic moments and that’s more or less the same here although this time around it feels a little overplayed, particularly evident in the repetition of the hilarious ‘monologuing’ scene that, whilst amusing, isn’t quite as effective as it was originally.

Game of Thrones and Ready Palyer One actress Hannah John-Kamen plays the main antagonist, a meta-human known as ‘Ghost’ who is an interesting character with an intriguing backstory that promises depth but ultimately isn’t as fully explored as one would hope.  Adding to the threat is Walton Goggins (Predators) as underworld dealer Sonny Burch, similarly underdeveloped but provides an extra element of villainy non-the-less.

Laurence Fishburne brings further star value in a small albeit key role as Pym’s former colleague, Dr. Bill Foster facilitating some wonderfully tense rivalry between the two.  Unfortunately, Michelle Pfeiffer is surprisingly underserved as Janet Van Dyne – what moments she has are significant but the film’s screenplay doesn’t provide enough room for development.

Whilst the use of humour in some of Marvel’s other efforts can be overutilised and not always hit the mark, it’s pretty much perfectly executed here and in a similar vein to Guardians of the Galaxy it feels integral to the world of Ant-Man.  Making light of absurd concepts and situations is part of what makes this iteration of the character (coupled with Rudd’s performance and comic timing) work successfully and only adds to the appeal.

Ant-Man and the Wasp doesn’t do anything daring or different but it’s as enjoyable as the first film and the right sort of tonal shift for those still reeling from the emotional shocks of Infinity War whilst preparing viewers for what’s to come.

The bottom line:  Ant-Man and the Wasp provides more of the same in a comic book romp that amongst its inventive action is funny, exciting and heartfelt.

Ant-Man and the Wasp is in cinemas now.