Tag Archives: sci-fi

Welcome to wild, wild ‘Wyrmwood’

In the spoiler-heavy trailer above, one of the review blurbs calls Wyrmwood: Road of the DeadMad Max meets Dawn of the Dead.” Honestly, that sums it up pretty well.

It’s the zombie apocalypse, in Australia at least. If you don’t have the right blood type, then you turn into the walking dead. Cars are of no use because, it turns out, fuel no longer burns. There’s nowhere to run, few places to hide, and the last of humanity is drastically outnumbered. It’s pretty bleak. Hence, Dawn of the Dead.

Quirky characters abound, from The Doctor – a dancing madman doing experiments on those who haven’t succumb to the plague – to Benny, a goofy dude without seemingly much to offer other than his own special brand of foolish bravery. Toss in the unique armor, the altered vehicles (turns out, zombies belch fuel), the sped-up road scenes and more, and the Mad Max comparison is apt, as well.

But what saves Wyrmood from being completely derivative is the humor and the twist. Not only is the film funny, it’s not afraid to inject humor in truly dark moments, seemingly out of left field. The scene shown in the above trailer where our hero tries to shoot himself in the head, only to be out of nails in his nailgun, is not funny, at all. Until that happens, and then you’re laughing when you know you shouldn’t be. The twist I won’t spoil, but it’s a game-changer and not something I’ve seen used in a zombie flick, at least not the way it’s handled here. It is a tribute to director Kiah Roche-Turner and his co-writer Tristan Roche-Turner that it doesn’t just become a Mad Max knockoff with zombies, but is its own unique entity, and a fun one, at that.

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5 reasons to watch ‘Stranger Things’

5) The boys. Ronnie, Bobby, Ricky and Mike … er, sorry, that’s Mike, Dustin, Lucas and Will take us 80s children back to Goonies or Stand By Me, in that they have the dumb, goofy kid way of relating to each other. It doesn’t seem scripted or forced, just your average four junior high kids who don’t quite get girls yet and are far more interested in the next weekend’s D&D campaign than the school dance. The teen boys and twin love interests of Mike’s sister Nancy – played by Charlie Heeton and Joe Keery – also each bring something interesting to the proceedings after coming off as the stereotypical outsider and jealous boyfriend in the early going. Terrific casting.

4) The girls. Millie Bobby Brown plays a weird, creepy girl who is more than she appears. She’s had practice: She was also a weird, creepy girl who was more than she appeared in the BBC science fiction drama Intruders from 2014. However, this is a different kind of creepy. Her Stranger Things character, Eleven or “Elle” as the boys take to calling her, is a lost puppy with great powers who doesn’t quite understand how she fits into the world, whereas her Intruders character, Madison, was far more menacing and violent. Either way, Brown kicks ass. Natalia Dyer brings some depth to Mike’s teen sister Nancy, and really brings it when the shit hits the fan. And I’m tossing Winona Ryder in here, too, although calling her a “girl” might seem a little demeaning for someone who is a year older than I am. I don’t think I’d seen Ryder in anything since Black Swan, and she still has an amazing screen presence. Her role as the mom of a lost child could have easily succumbed to silly melodrama in some over-the-top manner by a lesser actress, but Ryder keeps it grounded in a situation where that’s not as easy as it sounds. Hope to see her hauling in a best supporting actress Emmy next year.

3) The music. The soundtrack is great, full of 1980s hits and re-workings – such as a Peter Gabriel’s cover of David Bowie’s Heroes – that really help set the scene. You’ll never listen to The Clash’s Should I Stay or Should I Go? the same way again. The score by Survive is another thing entirely, frequently reminding me of classic horror of the era, particularly – but not limited to – Halloween. The story and the acting are both great, but the music is like sweet, creamy icing on top of the best cake you’ve ever eaten.

2) The 1980s. No cell phones, no Twitter, no Facebook, no online gaming. It helps build the tension when you can’t reach out to everyone all at once. The over-sized walkie talkies were a great choice, both for believability and the visual, showing just how far tech has come in 30 or so years. The hair and the fashion, as well as the design of the automobiles … it’s like watching news footage from some suburban documentary in 1983 or something. It’s akin to what’s done on FX’s The Americans, the level of detail used to properly set the scene.

1) The end. As we were watching the show come to a close, my daughter asked, “Is this going to be the only season?” I mused that maybe it was going to be more of a single-season anthology show, like American Horror Story. But then two things happen, and suddenly there’s potential for so much more ahead with the same gang from Hawkins, Indiana, that we’re now so invested in. Well played.

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Sci-fi and ScarJo: A winning combo

I’ve been impressed with Scarlett Johansson’s choice of science fiction roles, namely her starring turns in 2013’s Under the Skin and 2014’s Lucy. Not only is Johansson good in two solid films, the movies and Johansson’s roles couldn’t be more different.

I’ve gone into detail about my adoration for Under the Skin elsewhere, so I won’t focus much on it. I will note that Under the Skin is quiet, allowing the action and acting to lead, moving at a deliberate pace. Between straightforward, largely quiet scenes are dark, murky, abstract moments, all eventually leading to one helluva mind-fuck ending. It’s not a commercial flick by any means, with the exception of its star being part of the biggest comic book movie series on the planet.

In Lucy, from writer-director Luc Besson (director of La Femme Nikita and Leon: The Professional, as well as the producer behind the Taken flicks), Johannson plays the title character, a young woman looking to have a little fun in the Far East until she gets in over her head, carrying drugs for hardcore gangster, Mr. Chang (Min-Sik Choi of Oldboy and Lady Vengeance), who has killed her boyfriend and is threatening to kill others near and dear to her. The drugs, implanted in her body, leak, and said chemicals push her mind and body through about 5,000 years of evolution in 24 hours.

My guess is the science in this science fiction may not be so solid, as Lucy goes from your average human using about 10 percent of her brain to a superhuman pushing 100 percent capacity. But Besson does what Besson does: He pushes the action, whether that means interspersing lectures by expert Professor Norman (Morgan Freeman) with shots from nature and the universe, or the attack by Chang’s men against French police that is a hail of lead tearing apart a hallway, or Lucy literally trying to hold herself together as the effects of the drug wear off during a plane ride (see the video above). In defense of the science component, as Lucy evolves from bubbly blonde to being of pure data and energy, I began to think of Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001 series. Only Lucy manages to do in a couple of days what evolution took (hundreds of) millions of years to do in Clarke’s imagining. I’m not saying it’s accurate or likely, but Lucy fleetingly dwells on similar ideas about evolution and immortality, in between car chases and gunshots.

Johansson excels in two dissimilar roles. In Under the Skin, she is a predator, silently stalking her prey, focused solely on the hunt, until that unfortunate moment when she realizes she is just as vulnerable as the men she consuming. From that point, she goes from offense to defense, searching for a place to hide in a world she is unfamiliar with. In Lucy, Johansson goes from a happy-go-lucky young woman to an entity that is solely concerned with devouring information and processing that data to find an answer that might not even exist.

Lucy and Under the Skin are an interesting mix, and my hope is Johansson continues to look for science fiction roles. She certainly seems to have a knack for picking them.

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Just say no to ‘Independence’

It could have at least been fun, this whole Independence Day reunion tour. Parts were there – the new enormous spaceship, the queen leading the hive, etc.

But instead, flop, fizzle … other f words come to mind. Here’s the main two reasons not to see this room-temperature turd:

  1. Beating the aliens is too easy. While I’d never argue ID4 was any sort of cinematic classic, it does a nice job of building the tension, putting our heroes backs up against the wall and making it hard to see that there’s any way out for the humans fighting the massive alien invasion. Here, the build is awkward and uneven, there’s little to no character development and the resolution both seems easy and somewhat ridiculous. Resurgence isn’t even a shadow of ID4‘s former self.
  2. The goddamn school bus. At one point, Julius (Judd Hirsch) gets entangled with a family of newly minted orphans. Because riding in a late-model station wagon with a group of four kids younger than 16 isn’t cute enough, they then jump on a school bus with a bunch of kids whose driver has abandoned them on the side of the road. Then, because that wasn’t cute enough, they just happen to end up in the middle of the desert where David (Jeff Goldblum) is about to help take down the aliens once and for all. And because that isn’t cute enough, then David drives the school bus as he and his plucky band are chased by the enormous hive mother alien. The only things lacking to make this the schmaltziest film you’ve ever seen are Ewoks and a Randy Newman soundtrack.
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‘Zombeavers’ is what it is, but could have been more

zombeavers_still

When the zombeavers arrive, everyone is damned.

When you sit down to watch a movie about zombie beavers, you’re not exactly expecting Citizen Kane or The Imitation Game.

However, is it too much to ask for decent dialogue and something resembling pacing? Zombeavers clocks in at only 77 minutes, yet the first half hour drags mercilessly, a combination of stock horror characters delivering flat, uninspired dialogue and the occasional beaver pun. The potential for a nice mix of humor and menace – think the Chucky films or Gremlins – is there, but is never captured.

Thankfully, once the zombeaver attack starts, the movie is twice as fun. The beavers are the best part of the film. The stuffed puppets are one-part creepy, one-part hysterical. Occasionally, co-writer/director Jordan Rubin manages to capture the menace of these little beasts, and he also finds the humor when the furry pests come to the forefront.

If only it weren’t for the damn humans. No wonder those zombeavers were so pissed off. They knew the bi-peds were killing their moment to shine.

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5 reasons to watch ‘Mr. Robot’

5. Christian Slater. It’s been awhile since I’ve seen Christian Slater in something where he was doing anything other than a poor imitation of his persona from Heathers. Here, Salter’s character is the mysterious leader of a hacker group called F Society who is interested in crippling the global banking system, specifically with the idea to eliminate personal debt for everybody, truly allowing them to be free. He is duplicitous, self-righteous and manipulative. When he’s not on screen, you are left to wonder what schemes he might be following through on that are going to cause more stress for our main character, Elliot.

4. The hacking. Hollywood, of course, likes to put its spin on anything. Frequently, the entertainment industry works to romanticize or make glamorous that which is neither and is not meant to be either. And while I don’t know shit about programming, writing code or hacking, Mr. Robot seems to have a more realistic take on it than most of the shows and movies I’ve seen. It’s detail oriented, tedious, tests patience, an insider’s game. Mr. Robot manages to make hacking interesting enough without trying to make it sexy. They also do a nice job of using hacking scenes to build tension or give us insight to the mindset of the characters, rather than just using it as a means to an end to be rushed past so we can get to more interesting scenes.

3. The women. Don’t get me wrong: There are more than a few good looking women in Mr. Robot. But Darlene (Carly Chaikin), Trenton (Sunita Mani), Angela (Portia Doubleday), Shayla (Frankie Shaw) and Joanna (Stephanie Corneliussen) aren’t just there to be eye candy. Darlene and Trenton are both capable hackers. Darlene is the one who is forced to deal most with Elliot’s foibles and problems, trying to keep him on track and focused by any means necessary. Trenton is the conscience of the hacker group, motivated by more than just giving a middle finger to the man or hacking the impossible hack. Shayla is the one character that really humanizes Elliot in a way he and other characters can’t. Joanna might be the most delightfully dark and perverse femme since Catherine Trammell in Basic Instinct. And Angela, who initially ends up seeming as if she will be nothing more than the best friend with relationship issues, could end up having the most interesting story line outside of Elliot’s. These women aren’t just there to satisfy the Bechdel test. Each is a capable and interesting character, and their presence makes the story that much stronger.

2. Evil Corp. C’mon, we all think Apple, Microsoft, Wal-Mart, McDonald’s, etc., are Satan’s emissaries here on Earth. Mr. Robot is just a little more honest about it.

1. Remi Malek. The star of Mr. Robot is the man who makes this whole thing work. The hacking, the interpersonal drama, the corporate drama, the anarchy, the big Fight Club-esque twist. None of this can happen if Elliot, the character the whole shebang is centered around, is weak sauce. Elliot is emotionally cut-off (likely on the autism spectrum, frequently implied but never verbalized), battling mental health issues and drug addiction, still reeling from the loss of his father at an early age, unwilling to play the game the rest of the people around him play. As the madness swirls around him, Malek floats through Mr. Robot with his dark, intense eyes, hoodie up, lost in his own thoughts and ideas of what the world is and how it should be. There’s never a moment where his performance falters or seems off in any way.

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Nostalgia, ‘The Force Awakens’ and ‘The Hateful Eight’

“I started to cry.”

That’s what my wife said as we walked out of the theater after watching The Force Awakens. When that John Williams’ Star Wars theme kicked in and those yellow words started scrolling through deep space, I have to admit, I started feeling pretty warm and fuzzy myself, and I’m not the most sentimental of people.

It was a huge plus that The Force Awakens is an OK flick. Back when Episode I came out, my boss and I split five hours sitting in line in the south Texas heat to score tickets for opening night. Then we were treated to a raging shitfest of a “film” that would be best forgotten. Poorly written, poorly acted, poorly directed and with a focus more on scenery and settings than character development or story – thanks, George Lucas – The Phantom Menace made a mockery of the Star Wars franchise.

I think that accounts for some of the insanity surrounding The Force Awakens. Episodes I-III were so poorly done, so uneven, so tedious that the bar was set incredibly low for Episode VII. The Force Awakens introduces two great new characters – Rey and Finn – as well as setting up a number of potentially interesting strings that will be unraveled in the next couple of movies. Real scenery was favored over computer-generated worlds, there was character development, the dialogue was easily better than anything from the first three episodes and more.

But there’s plenty going on that’s just not that good. For example, Rey and Finn’s introduction to Han and Chewbacca. “Hey, there’s billions of people in the universe, billions upon billions of stars and planets, and billions upon billions upon billions of mileage in the galaxy, but pretty much the second Rey and Finn enter space, they run into the one person and one wookie they most need to run into.” The odds of that happening are pretty much like winning the Powerball and the Mega Millions jackpots, receiving a Pulitzer, getting elected president of the United States and being struck by lightning six times … all on the same day. And don’t try blaming The Force for defying the odds. It’s poorly done.

And then it gets worse. Abrams brings in Iko Uwais and Yayan Ruhian from The Raid: Redemption and The Raid 2 for cameos in the scene right after the previously mentioned fortuitous meeting, when Han’s man-eating cargo escapes and starts slinging blood and body parts around his ship. Why cast two of the biggest martial arts badasses on the planet only to have them run around and scream like little girls playing “Bloody Mary” at a sleepover? Beyond me.

There are other things, as well. The dialogue and acting in the scene where Han and Leia reunite was hard to watch it was so poorly done. I’m not sure why everyone was so excited about Oscar Isaac. Loved him in Ex Machina, but in The Force Awakens, he’s an under-cooked, third-rate Han. Kylo Ren is a sullen, uninteresting douche like his Grandpa Anakin and not worthy of his Grandpa Vader’s helmet. The scenes at Leia’s base are poorly framed and look cheaply done. And so on.

This is when the insanity surrounding The Force Awakens kicks in. People are willing to forgive a lot because Han is back acting cocky, the shadow of Luke hangs over all of the proceedings, Leia is still running things and Chewy provides some laughs. Don’t get me wrong, I loved all of that. But the nostalgia is not enough to hide The Force Awakens weaknesses, and it’s surely not enough to make it the highest-grossing ever … at least, in my opinion.

I had similar feelings about Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight. Luckily, it’s a better film than The Force Awakens. Jennifer Jason Lee put herself back on the map with her performance as Daisy Domergue. The snowy shots of Wyoming, a terrific cast and the claustrophobic setting of Minnie’s Harberdashery were all solid.

But the story mostly benefits from its similarities to Reservoir Dogs, which I think is the superior film. Quentin Tarantino fans love seeing QT faves like Kurt Russell, Samuel Jackson, Michael Madsen and others getting all macho and manly and staring each other down. It’s like Tarantino made a three-hour film out of the Mexican standoff at the end of Dogs. At lot of classic Tarantino.

Which is the problem. I think Tarantino did a better job of building the tension in the opening scene of Inglorious Basterds than he did in Eight. I think the showdown in Reservoir Dogs benefits from a better build-up than Eight. I think the Bride’s story of revenge is superior to that of Major Warren. I think Madsen and Tim Roth were better in Reservoir Dogs and Russell is better in Death Proof. And this is the most Jules-like Jackson has been since Pulp Fiction. I was waiting for him to start screaming, “What does Abraham Lincoln look like? Does he look like a bitch?”

Again, though, that doesn’t mean Hateful Eight is bad. It’s probably a better film than Death Proof, Kill Bill Vol. 2, Django Unchained and 95% of what landed in theaters in 2015. And fully admit that I look forward to the day I go to see a stage production of Hateful Eight, because it’s just waiting to be adapted.

For me, though, both in the case of The Hateful Eight and The Force Awakens, the nostalgia doesn’t make up for the flaws. But judging from reviews and box office numbers, I may be alone in that.

So it goes.

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The only thing we have to fear is another ‘Walking Dead’ spin-off

If these are the people you are trying to survive the zombie apocalypse with, you might as well just shoot yourself now.

If these are the people you are trying to survive the zombie apocalypse with, you might as well just shoot yourself now.

AMC, you’ve gone too far.

Better Call Saul was a great choice for a spinoff. You had a couple of interesting, vital, skeevy, secretive side characters, Saul and Mike, who were part Walter White’s story but weren’t really the focus of Breaking Bad, nor they should they have been. But there was so much going on with those two in Breaking Bad that exploring what got them to the point that they working with Heisenberg was a rich vein to mine, if done correctly. The first season proved Saul has something going on, and I can’t wait to see where the series goes next.

But AMC couldn’t stop there. No, we were force-fed Fear the Walking Dead. Don’t get me wrong, there’s plenty that could have been explored in the Dead-verse. For example, why not focus on the government response to the calamity. What was going on in statehouses? How did the president and his (or her) advisers react to the crisis? We were given a glimpse of the CDC reaction in Walking Dead, but why not follow the research component of response to this pandemic? Why not leave the United States and give us a cast in sub-Saharan Africa, Russia, India, the Philipines? Heck, how about the struggle of the folks up in the International Space Station as they try to figure out what has happened on the ground and how they’re going to get back? The possibilities are virtually endless, restrained only by the imagination of the creative team. Everything I wrote here I thought up as I was writing it. Surely, given time and resources, the Fear the Walking Dead folks could have developed something beyond my abilities.

Instead of a million interesting, unique scenarios, however, we were given a West-Coast version of the East-Coast show we were already watching. It feels like we’re being fed under-heated, leftover lasagna that was overcooked in the first place. We watched as different people made the same mistakes we’d already seen our plucky Walking Dead heroes make over and over again. But, hey, L.A.! That has to count for something, right?

It’s disappointing. It comes off as the sort of crass money grab one would expect from one of the major networks instead of something new and interesting from the cable network who has dropped some pretty interesting drama in our laps over the past five years or so. It’s not must-watch television, period. Heck, after the first season of Walking Dead, I could name most of the characters off of the top of my head. Notice how I haven’t mentioned any Fear the Walking Dead characters by name? That’s because not only do I not remember any names, I don’t consider it worth my time to hop over to IMDB and look them up.

So, sorry, AMC. I eagerly anticipate your small-screen version of the Preacher comic book series, and I’m sure I’ll get into some of your original programming down the road. But Fear the Walking Dead is about as interesting to me as AfterMASH or That 80’s Show. And so, much as I did with those shows and others like them, I’ll turn my attention elsewhere.

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What in the name of ‘Jupiter’ is going on with the Wachowskis?

The duo who created "The Matrix" thought elf ears and rocket boots were a good idea.

The duo who created “The Matrix” thought elf ears and rocket boots were a good idea.

My thoughts on Jupiter Ascending can be summed up in the three words: What the fuck?

Channing Tatum with elf ears and rocket boots, then wings to replace his boots. Spaceships that physically reconfigure as they fly, acting like Transformers that can’t quite transform. A cast of aliens that look like they were kicked out of the Mos Eisley cantina because they couldn’t hold their own with true ruffians. Eddie Redmayne acting like a constipated Darth Vader who is seeking revenge against the universe for that one time that one kid broke the kung-fu grip on one of his G.I. Joes. A movie that has no suspense, uninteresting action sequences and a wicked sense of humor that far too rarely shows its face. A film that acts like it wants to confront corporate greed and the moral failings of the universe’s 1%, but only skates the surface, refusing to make the leap and sink into the perversity. And so on.

Sex, gangsters, money, the corruption of a patriarchal society and more make "Bound" one of the Wachowskis most interesting flicks.

Sex, gangsters, money, the corruption of a patriarchal society and more make “Bound” one of the Wachowskis’ most interesting flicks.

I remember watching Bound, the first film from Lana (then Larry) and Andy Wachowski. The noir crime flick is taut and suspenseful, a swirl of uncertain loyalties and sexual intensity. It’s the only low-budget flick the duo have ever created, and it might be their finest. They made the most of the limitations of their budget, leaning heavily on story, a moody atmosphere and fine performances by Gina Gershon, Jennifer Tilly and Joe Pantoliano.

Then, of course, came The Matrix, the movie that took sci-fi and action cinema and ripped it to shreds. I think now, in part because of the problematic Matrix Reloaded and Matrix Revolutions, the original gets taken for granted. And when The Matrix does get props, it’s too often for the technological aspects. The Wachowskis managed to mix futuristic technology, kung fu flicks, LGBT+ subculture, noir cinema and some deep philosophical thought into a movie that could be enjoyed as a straight shoot-em-up flick as well as high art.

But since then … Matrix Reloaded was just awful. After the initial time I saw it in the theater, I’ve never been able to get through it again. Revolutions really did a nice job of getting the whole Matrix mess back on track, but it was still unsatisfying. Speed Racer is dour and dull, a movie that wants to be serious and important thematically while visually being little more than a somewhat intense and significantly less-fun version of Mario Kart. V for Vendetta wasn’t bad, but the Wachowskis didn’t direct that one, and if you’ve read the graphic novel the movie was based on like I have, you’re probably less impressed with the film than the average viewer. I haven’t seen Cloud Atlas, mostly because I loved the book and find it hard to believe that author David Mitchell’s sprawling tome could be done justice in a few hours of screen time, although I might get around to it at some point.

Which brings us back to Jupiter Ascending. When it was announced, I thought this might be it, the Wachowskis getting back on track, making movies that are must-see. The first trailer popped that balloon, and what we got was a final product that was a bloated, boring, tonally uneven mess that wasted the talents of actors like Tatum, Mila Kunis and Sean Bean.

Am I done with the Wachowskis? That might be overstating it. But the writer-directing duo’s next project, whatever that may be, won’t be must-see as far as I’m concerned. And it makes me a little sad to write that.

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New ‘Apes’ works for me in ways original movies never did

It's time to call in the cavalry.

It’s time to call in the cavalry.

I’m a big fan of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel. Thematically, both shows were challenging, the core group of actors worked well together and the humor is terrific. I know some folks had problems with the rubber masks, but that never bothered me. Vampires, demons, werewolves, they aren’t real, so if they look a little hokey, I can live with that.

That’s why I never could get into the original Planet of the Apes movies. Apes, monkeys, orangutans, whatever, they are very real and have unique features that distinguish them from each other, as well as from humans. The apes from the old flicks mostly just kind of looked and sounded like humans, except they were wearing bad masks. They were hokey, and every time I tried to watch them, it took me completely out of that world. I couldn’t suspend my disbelief.

The new Planet of the Apes films, on the other hand, I find fascinating. The first flick was a nice set-up, a prison escape film that give us an interesting inside perspective on being a wild animal in captivity, as well as the damaging psychological effects on such animals. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes really got me cheering on this series. We watch as the apes sulk and scream in rage, spitting out their animosity at the humans every chance they get. And yet, when the time comes, the apes evolve into scheming, duplicitous, violence-loving bipeds that seem a lot like the people they despise so very much. When Caesar’s death is orchestrated to appear as if it was done by humans instead of his own lieutenants in order to unite the apes against the humans, I thought of the Gulf of Tonkin incident that led up to increased U.S. involvement in Vietnam and the sinking of the USS Maine that was the preamble to the Spanish-American War.

And I was able to enjoy all of this because I was never taken out of the moment by stiff, rubber-masked pseudo-apes. With my disbelief sufficiently suspended, I could really soak in the story. And I’m left wondering what War of the Planet of the Apes has in store for us next.

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