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Posts Tagged ‘Andy Serkis’

Slightly further down this very page I will be sharing my opinion of Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther. You may agree with me about this film, partly or fully. You may well not. Now, I would normally say that there was nothing very exceptional about this fact: people have different opinions all the time, after all, it’s a fact of life.

But it isn’t, apparently: advance publicity on Black Panther went off on a bit of a tangent last week, with the exposure of an organised campaign to trash this film’s ratings on the review aggregator site Rotten Tomatoes, courtesy of a bunch of people who hadn’t even seen it yet (some of them associated with extremist right-wing groups). The reason for this rather eccentric behaviour? They claim to be sick of movies based on DC Comics getting lousy reviews from professional critics, while ones from Marvel Studios are generally much better received. They make accusations of systematic bias and corruption amongst the critics.

Putting entirely to one side the issue of Wonder Woman, a DC movie which received some of the most glowing notices of last year, one wonders if it has occurred to these people that the reason DC’s movie output generally gets lukewarm reviews is because DC movies, of late, have usually been somewhat lousy. Apparently not: the concept of an honest difference of opinion does not seem to have occurred to them. The only reason someone could not share their point of view must be because they are part of a conspiracy to hide the truth – whether that’s because they’re in the pockets of Marvel, or because they’re pushing a particular politically-correct agenda. Levelling this particular accusation in the vicinity of Black Panther is especially provocative, given the film is largely distinguished by the fact it is very much a non-Caucasian take on the superhero genre of which Marvel are currently the masters.

It seems to me to be particularly symptomatic of our current times, anyway: recent months seem to have witnessed a terminal breakdown in the very concept of consensus, the idea that there are things that everyone can broadly agree on. Either the news media is a principled establishment telling the truth about a troubled and chaotic administration, or it’s a fake instrument of a liberal conspiracy trying to topple an elected leader – there’s not much in the way of middle ground here, and the UK has its own gaping divisions about the main political issues of the day.

Just to be clear, I am not in the pockets of Marvel (though if Kevin Feige is reading this, I would be willing to open negotiations) – or, if I am, it is only because of the consistently high standard of their film-making. Feel free to disagree with me about this or anything else.

Normally I would say it was slightly absurd to be making such a fuss about what is, after all, a comic-book superhero movie, but, you know, Unique Cultural Moment, and the supposedly radical nature of Black Panther has been front and centre in its publicity. Some mildly silly things have already been said of this movie – apparently it is the first ever superhero movie with a black lead character (no it’s not, there was Meteor Man (1993), not mention Spawn and Steel (both 1997), and Marvel’s own Blade (1998), to name only a few), while the BBC claimed it has an ‘all-black cast’, which probably came as a surprise to Martin Freeman and Andy Serkis, both of whom feature prominently in it. Can the movie itself possibly stand up to all this hype?

Well, this is the seemingly-unstoppable Marvel mega-franchise project, so you never can tell. Following on fairly closely from the events of Civil War, the movie opens with Prince T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) returning to his remote African homeland of Wakanda so he can be crowned the new king, and take up the mantle of Wakanda’s protector, the Black Panther. The wider world thinks Wakanda is a quiet little third-world country full of trees and shepherds, but this is an elaborate ruse to conceal the fact that it really possesses the most advanced technology on the planet, courtesy of being struck by a meteorite full of magic alien metal in ancient times.

The new king’s first duty is keep this secret, but he also feels bound to avenge an old wrong – namely, a raid on Wakanda many years earlier by the South African criminal Ulysses Klaue (Serkis, reprising the role from Age of Ultron). Given the CIA also has an interest in Klaue’s activities, can he do so without exposing Wakanda to the world? There is also the problem that one of Klaue’s associates is a mercenary known as Killmonger (Michael B Jordan), an embittered and angry scion of the Wakandan royal house, who is intent on seizing the throne…

It will come as no real surprise to anyone who’s been keeping up with developments in cinema over the last few years that Marvel show no sign of dropping the ball with their latest project: Black Panther is a finely-machined piece of entertainment, lavishly mounted, with a solid script and a carefully-judged tone. There are fantastically thrilling action sequences, very good jokes, charismatic performances, and plenty of little references to reward people who’ve been following along with the ongoing meta-plot for the last ten years or so. Boseman radiates nobility and cool as the Black Panther, Jordan matches him as Killmonger, and Andy Serkis is having a whale of a time as the absurdly evil Klaue (who’s not in the movie nearly enough).

Anticipation is high for every new Marvel movie, but especially so in this case: even before the current Unique Moment came about, there had been murmurings about the perceived lack of diversity and Euro-centricity of the Marvel films, and Black Panther has deliberately been pitched as restitution for this: it’s not quite an all-black movie, but the majority of the roles are filled by non-white performers.

There’s a sense in which Black Panther is essentially a piece of diversity wish-fulfilment, for at the heart of the film is its depiction of an Afrofuturistic utopia where, unravaged by the attentions of colonial European powers, African culture has developed technology decades ahead of the rest of the world. It’s probably best not to think about this too much, to be perfectly honest, nor about the way that this supposedly progressive new presentation of African characters still concludes with people riding around on rhinos waving spears. This is at heart still a piece of entertainment, after all.

Having said that, the film also contains some very interesting and genuinely subversive ideas about culture and colonialism. Coogler draws a very clear distinction between T’Challa, his purely African hero, and Killmonger, a villain who has been corrupted – it is implied – by growing up African-American, with all the injustice and prejudice one associates with this. There is a restrained but palpable sense of anger about this film at times, and one can’t help but recall that in the comics T’Challa briefly operated under the codename Black Leopard in order to distance the character from the Black Panther Party, a radical socialist group.

However, just as the first Captain America film couldn’t show a superhero ending the Second World War in 1942, so Black Panther can’t depict the magical solution of all the racial problems in the world today. It’s when the film butts up against real-world issues that it seems most in danger of losing its way – it has to walk a tricky tonal tightrope, for instance, when confronting the fact that Wakanda’s fierce isolationism makes it to some extent complicit in the woes inflicted on Africa by Europeans and Americans.

Is this to take a Marvel superhero film too seriously? Normally I would agree, but this movie is sincerely being hailed as a watershed moment in the way African culture is portrayed in Hollywood movies, and a great leap forward for blockbusters with predominantly non-white casts. Well, maybe: this is a Marvel movie, after all, and if we’ve learned anything, it’s that different rules seem to apply here. Black Panther‘s place in cultural history will become apparent with the passing of time; what we can be sure of now is that this another superbly entertaining fantasy from the studio.

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I was sitting at my desk the other other day, trying to look busy, as usual, when one of the very senior fellows from where I work sidled up. This in itself is fairly unusual, and at this point in my career I’ll grasp at any straw that floats past, so I sat up straight and braced myself for whatever was coming.

‘Have you seen the new Planet of the Apes film yet?’ To say this came totally out of left field would be a bit of an understatement.

‘Er, not yet. What they’ve done is – stop me if you find your eyes starting to close – you know how they say that nothing succeeds like success? Well, apparently the best way to have a successful film is to have a successful film; I mean, if you have a really good opening weekend, then you can put that in the publicity and it will make people go and see it on the second weekend. So what they’ve done is release it on a Tuesday, because that means they have Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday -‘ I believe I may have been counting on my fingers ‘- a six day opening weekend, to guarantee a good total.’

‘That’s just fraud.’ (Amused incredulity.)

‘That’s showbusiness. But all the early showings are in 3D, which I don’t like, so I’m seeing it on Friday.’

‘Really? I like 3D. A Planet of the Apes film in 3D is one of my guilty pleasures.’

I tell you what, you get a better class of afficionado around the Planet of the Apes films, that’s for sure. (All the more dismaying that 20th Century Fox should find it necessary to indulge in such sharp practice when it comes to the release strategy.) Yes, here we are with Matt Reeves’ War for the Planet of the Apes, the kind of title to make a cinema give up and list it on the ticket as simply WFTPOTA (with an extra 2D in my case).

The new film continues the story begun in Rise of the Planet of the Apes and continued in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. For a couple of years, elements of the surviving human military forces have been attempting to hunt down and destroy Caesar (Andy Serkis) and his tribe of genetically-uplifted apes. Caesar has been attempting to make peace overtures, but the human commander, known as the Colonel (last name not Taylor, sadly), is implacable in his hostility and a raid on the ape settlement kills several of Caesar’s loved ones. (The Colonel is played by Woody Harrelson, who is on top form.)

Consumed by rage and the desire for revenge, Caesar sets out in search of his enemy, accompanied only by a few of his closest lieutenants. In the wilderness they find evidence of a transformed world – a young girl who has lost the ability to speak (Amiah Miller), and a zoo ape who has risen to intelligence and acquired the power of speech independently of Caesar’s group (Steve Zahn). There are also strange signs that the humans are starting to fight amongst themselves. But all Caesar is interested in is the Colonel, who he learns has made his base in an abandoned military facility. The looming conflict will settle the destiny of the planet forever…

I do wonder sometimes why I’m not more enthusiastic about the new Planet of the Apes series, because these are by any metric highly intelligent, well-made genre movies, that certainly honour the classic Apes series from the 1960s and 70s (those who know their Planet of the Apes will certainly find little touches to reward them here and there in the new film). I’m not sure – maybe it’s just that the new series doesn’t have quite the same epic scope or loopy imagination as the originals, or indeed their willingness, at their best, to tackle big issues – animal and civil rights, the inherent self-destructiveness of man, the morality of self-protection, and so on. The new films may be technically more proficient and possibly more credible, but they are essentially just superior action-adventure movies, strongly characterised, but rarely very innovative.

The new movie continues this trend, albeit in an even bleaker and more intense vein: this is a dark, brooding film, full of characters driven to do the most terrible things in the name of that which they believe. There’s a very Heart of Darkness-y vibe going on – the Colonel has clearly been inspired by Brando’s performance as Kurtz, and I would have entitled this review Ape-Ocalypse Now had the gag not already been used in the movie itself. It adds up to a pretty full-on experience, with most of the leavening moments of lightness coming from Zahn’s character (who is interesting, but the notion behind his origins doesn’t really go anywhere).

And, once again, there’s nothing actually wrong with it, but at the same time it is never irresistibly surprising or thrilling, nor does it fully engage the brain. It is being suggested that this is the concluding entry in this particular incarnation of Planet of the Apes, which is fair enough. However, ever since Rise I’ve kind of felt this series was promising to build up to the big moment of revelation, when we got to see something akin to the actual planet of apes from the original 1968 movie – a dominant, technologically-advanced ape civilisation, feral, speechless humans, and so on. Key plot points in this movie just added to that impression while I was watching it, and got me quite excited about what seemed to be on the way. In the end, though, we’re told about all this but never shown it. I was expecting something along the lines of a fade to black, the caption ‘1950 YEARS LATER’, and then a shot of a spacecraft re-entering the atmosphere. But no, nothing like that, not even post-credits. So in the end I have to say I feel slightly cheated – this series of films still hasn’t made good on its promises.

Then again, while the end of this movie does have a definite finality about it, apparently plans for at least one further episode are apparently afoot, so we may yet get our shot of a famous landmark, half-buried on a beach somewhere. This is a quality movie, intelligently made and very well performed, and fans of both SF in general and Planet of the Apes in particular should find much here to enjoy. Perhaps my problem is that my own personal expectations are just too high, because by any reasonable standard this is a distinctly superior blockbuster.

 

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Not quite 13 years ago, Tim Burton released his reimagined version of Planet of the Apes. I watched it, thought I had some things to say about it that people might be interested in, and persuaded someone to put my opinion on their website.

626 more film reviews later, here we all are: the website is a different one, but everything else is pretty much the same, including on this occasion the film under consideration – Matt Reeve’s reimagined version of a certain franchise, in the form of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. Rupert Wyatt did a sterling job of restarting the series three years ago in Rise of the Planet of the Apes, and his replacement by Reeves (best known for the so-so Cloverfield and the underrated Let Me In) was taken by many as an ill omen. Which just goes to show that sometimes nobody knows anything.

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Maintaining unprecedentedly good continuity with the previous film, Dawn opens with virally-uplifted chimpanzee Caesar (Andy Serkis) leading his colony of similar simians in the forests of northern California. The apes are enjoying a rather idyllic existence, and some of them are beginning to believe that the humans who once tormented them have done everyone a favour by dying out in the plague which was just getting underway at the end of the last installment.

There’d be no movie in that, of course, and a remnant of human survivors are indeed ensconced in what’s left of San Francisco, led by a man named Dreyfus (Gary Oldman, who’s not in the film as much as you might expect). The humans are running desperately low on fuel and other resources, and Dreyfus despatches his lieutenant Malcolm (Jason Clarke) to look into the possibility of reactivating the hydroelectric generators attached to a dam in the wilderness. Unfortunately, the dam is squarely in ape territory.

Relations between apes and humans do not get off to a good start, but the best efforts of Caesar and Malcolm result in a wary truce between the two groups. However, the history of mutual suspicion and prejudice between man and ape means that open conflict may only be a matter of time…

The consensus last time round was that Rise of the Planet of the Apes was, on some level, a superior rethinking of 1972’s Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (look, just to save wear on my keyboard, I’m going to start referring to these films by the first couple of words of their title, okay?). Logic therefore dictates that this sequel should be drawing on 1973’s Battle for… Doing a really good remake of Conquest is a neat trick but nothing particularly remarkable, as that was a movie with a strong central idea, undone by the exiguencies of running time and budget. Making a good version of Battle, on the other hand, is a different kettle of fish, as that film is the closest thing to a complete waste of time this side of Helena Bonham Carter.

And yet that is arguably just what Reeves has managed to do. In terms of actual plotting, Battle and Dawn have about in much as common as Conquest and Rise (which is to say, not very much at all), but when it comes to theme and characterisation the two films are very much on the same page: a clash between human and ape communities, with entrenched zealots on both sides, and an oddly tragic moral awakening amongst the apes themselves. Indeed, I would even suggest it’s as if Reeves and the films’ writers have got their hands on a copy of Paul Dehn’s original unmade script for Battle, which concerned itself with the apes’ fall from grace and the overthrow of Caesar by less emollient forces.

These ideas are present in Dawn, too, along with a distinct focus on the ape characters rather than the humans. It’s a tribute to the astonishing work of the VFX team, not to mention Reeves’ own storytelling skills, that a story primarily set amongst a non-human community, with largely mute characters, is as compelling as it is. Reeves’ first storytelling coup is to create an opening sequence which is thoroughly engrossing despite not featuring a single word of spoken dialogue, and his second is to make the unexpected appearance of a common-or-garden human being feel like a viscerally jarring shock.

Tellingly, it’s only at this point that the apes begin speaking, and it seems to me that this ties into the underlying message of the film: prior to meeting the humans, it’s strongly implied that the apes have lived in peace and harmony for years, and there’s nothing to suggest that the same is not true of the humans. Yet, within days of their first encounter, bloody conflict has broken out between the two – perhaps inevitably. Humans and apes have more in common than either side wants to admit, and perhaps this explains why they seem almost predestined to fight each other to the death.

This is a bleak, dark, strange theme for a big studio SF movie, but exactly what you’d expect from a proper Apes movie, and the various action sequences are brilliantly realised. It doesn’t have quite the same degree of social commentary as the films in the original cycle, but then that’s the state of SF movies these days, I suppose. Dawn certainly feels very confident in its own identity: it contains nothing like the same number of references and in-jokes as Rise (although the score does sound very familiar at certain points).

And, accomplished as it is, this is a film with every right to a certain swagger. It works very well as both an action blockbuster and a dark, intelligent SF movie, and extremely well as a Planet of the Apes film. I am just forced to wonder where this revitalised series is going to go next: having run out of original-cycle films to reinterpret, the only options left are either more of the same, or to take a really radical step of some kind. I’ve no idea which way Reeves will take the series next: but at the moment everything on the planet of the apes is rosy, in a grim and twisted sort of way.

 

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Normally, approaching the seventh film in a series I would expect to be entering distinctly Oh God Not Another One territory – let us not forget, even the mighty Bond and Star Trek franchises had quality control issues round about that point. With Rupert Wyatt’s new movie, however, all bets are off and my trepidation sprang from an entirely different source. This is, of course, because Wyatt’s movie is Rise of the Planet of the Apes, a new take on one of my very favourite SF series (regular readers will be in no doubt as to my affection for this particular branch of simian cinema).

The movie is trading heavily on the Apes brand in some ways, but it’s really something new and startlingly different. Our story opens in a peculiar world dominated by apes and their strange society – the apes in question being human beings and the society being a market-driven western democracy. Chief human this time around is Will Rodman (James Franco), a neurological researcher trying to develop an effective therapy for Alzheimers, which his father (John Lithgow) is suffering from, despite the scepticism of the heartless suit he works for (the suit is played by David Oyelowo).

A fairly major lab setback forces Rodman to start again, almost from scratch, and leaves him the unwilling paterfamilias of an infant chimpanzee (Andy Serkis – no, really), the child of one of his lab apes. It soon becomes apparent that his mother’s exposure to the therapy has affected young Caesar’s development, giving him a vastly boosted IQ for a start. The problem is that he’s no longer merely an ape, but neither does he have a place in human society.

Caesar’s growing self-awareness coupled to his alienation and attachment to the Rodmans eventually leads to trouble with the law and Will and his girlfriend (Freida Pinto) are forced to place him in a local ape shelter. The fact that the shelter is operated by Brian Cox (whom you may recall as the bad guy from The Bourne Supremacy, X2, Troy, etc) and Tom Felton (whom you may recall as the bleach-blond kid at Hogwarts) should tip you off as to the kind of establishment this turns out to be. Caesar’s intelligence does not prepare him for the brutality of his new life, but – characteristically – he rapidly adapts to it and is soon planning a break for freedom, not just for him but for all the inmates…

Most people, I expect, will have two starting points when it comes to talking about this movie – either the last attempt at an Apes reboot, directed by Tim Burton and released almost exactly ten years ago, or Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, which is the original movie this most closely resembles. That said, the resemblance is not a particularly strong one – while the Burton excrescence didn’t reference any of the original films, the whole look and style of the film made it very clear it was wholly in their thrall. Rise, on the other hand, would only need a few fairly minor changes in order to operate as a wholly original independent movie.

Possibly aware of this, the writer-producers have opted to shotgun the movie with what felt like dozens of references to the cast, characters, and stories of the original films, some of which are very obscure indeed – I’m not even sure I spotted them all myself. (That said Pierre Boulle, Rod Serling and Paul Dehn aren’t credited, which struck me as a little cheeky.) The subtle ones work best – when Tom Felton is required to recycle dialogue from the original series the effect is wearying rather than iconic. On the other hand, this does set up a moment which manages to be quintessentially Apes-y and yet also wholly and satisfyingly original: it certainly had your correspondent horripilating in his seat.

What’s slightly unexpected about this film is what a small-scale and relatively personal story it tells, and the story is that of Caesar rather than Rodman. With the first act completed, all Franco gets to do is to drive around trying to keep up with a plot that doesn’t really centre on him any more (Freida Pinto is even more ornamental). By this point Andy Serkis has already stepped into the spotlight and proceeds to dominate the rest of the film.

While Wyatt’s direction is good, this film really belongs to Serkis, the other ape performers, and the motion-capture techies at Weta: the special effects in this movie are truly astounding, creating each ape as a separate individual with his or her own personality. The creation of convincingly photorealistic apes is flawlessly done, and yet the wizardry still permits Serkis’s remarkable and deeply moving performance to shine through.

As with The Lord of the Rings, the action sequences of the movie are immaculately done but it’s the character interactions and performances that really make the film work. You should probably be aware that the action stuff is really only limited to the final act of the film, and given the promise of man-on-simian conflict and genuine ape-ocalypse which the title suggests, I think it would be remiss of me not to mention that the film doesn’t really go down this route. That’s not to say that the status quo is unchanged come the end of the film: it’s quite clear that the balance of power may well be undergoing a signficant alteration very soon, but they’re leaving that for the sequel. I would have appreciated a little more of the darkness and fatalism that ran throughout the original series.

In fact, my only real grumble about Rise of the Planet of the Apes is that it does suffer a little from reboot syndrome: rather like Batman Begins, it painstakingly puts everything in place for a follow-up which will contain all the cool stuff you really want to see in this kind of movie, but the problem is that as a result this movie seems ever so slightly underpowered in its climax and resolution. Deferring many potential good bits to a potential sequel is a slightly annoying thing to do, but the overall quality of this film means Wyatt and his associates get away with it. Rise of the Planet of the Apes may on some level be only an exercise in setting up targets to be knocked down at some indeterminate future date, but it does so with such aplomb that you emerge looking forward to seeing how they’re going to do it. A superior blockbuster and a worthy (if slightly iconoclastic) addition to the series.

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