Andy Serkis

Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle

20/12/18

You have to feel a little bit sorry for Andy Serkis. This film was his brainchild and he worked on it for something like five years, only to find himself pipped at the post by Jon Favreau’s (admittedly, impressive) live action Jungle Book, made for Disney. After that, the projected release dates for Mowgli were repeatedly pushed back by Warner Brothers, who clearly believed the public wasn’t quite ready for yet another version of such a familiar tale – and then, of course, along came Netflix, waving a chequebook and everything changed.

The first thing to say about Serkis’s film is that it’s a much darker and more feral beast than either of the Disney incarnations. This has a 12 certificate, so those parents thinking of sitting their toddlers down in front of it while they get on with the Christmas dinner might want to think twice. Screenwriter Callie Kloves, for the most part, sticks closely to Rudyard Kipling’s original short stories, so within a few minutes of the film’s opening I’ve witnessed the slaughter of Mowgli’s parents by man-eating tiger, Shere Kahn (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch), a scene that little children may find too red in tooth and claw for comfort. Kipling’s story was always a brutal one, reflecting the abandonment he felt as a youngster when his parents left him in the care of ruthless guardians while they headed back to India, and this film reflects that wildness.

Baby Mowgli grows up to be young Mowgli (Rohan Chand), who lives with wolves headed by Akela (Peter Mullan), but he never feels as though he’s a full member of the pack. As he grows, he is tutored by good-natured bear, Baloo (Andy Serkis, and by stern black panther, Bagheera (Christian Bale), both of whom try to teach him the basic laws of the jungle. (Happily they achieve this without ever bursting into song, something that Favreau’s version couldn’t quite resist.) Meanwhile, Mowgli can’t help casting an enquiring eye in the direction of the ever-encroaching humans, who day-by-day are venturing closer to the wolves’ hideout.

It’s when Mowgli visits the human’s village that the biggest changes to the original story occur. The presence of big game hunter, Lockwood (Matthew Rhys), is clearly intended to be a comment on white imperialism (though why it was decided to give this character the same name as Kipling’s father remains an enigma). Lockwood gives the impression of being a benevolent saviour, always ready to hand out gifts to the local villagers, but his home is full of grisly hunting trophies, one of which provides the film with its most poignant moment. Ultimately, Mowgli learns that while he isn’t an animal, he isn’t exactly a human either. He must somehow be the bridge that unites the different species and the only way to achieve this aim is for him to take on his greatest foe.

Once again, here’s a Netflix Original that really deserves to be seen on the biggest screen available. There are lush landscapes, stunning aerial shots and dramatic chases. The animal characterisations are particularly interesting, eschewing the photo-realistic approach of Favreau’s effort in favour of more stylised creatures that really do reflect the expressions of the actors that play them. Cate Blanchett as Kaa, the snake? She’s right there and, weirdly, you can tell it’s her.

Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle is a remarkable creation in its own right and one that deserves to exist proudly alongside those earlier screen versions of Kipling’s classic tale. But be warned, this has teeth and isn’t afraid to use them.

4.4 stars

Philip Caveney   

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Black Panther

24/02/18

For those viewers who, like me, are suffering from a bad case of spandex overload, help is at hand in the form of a Marvel superhero movie that doesn’t really feel like anything that’s gone before it. You thought Thor: Ragnarok pushed the envelope? Wait till you get a load of Black Panther!

In what is only his third film, director Ryan Coogler offers a powerful and confident take on the genre, an action film that gets so many things right it’s hard to resist its considerable charms. And I’m not just referring to the fact that the film is almost completely inhabited by black characters – that it’s a celebration of Africa and its culture – that there are so many strong, positive roles for women. This is an object lesson on how to reinvent and subvert a tired and over-familiar concept.

We first meet the hero of the film, T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), just after the death of his father, as he is about to become the King of Wakanda, a mythical African nation that, after a meteor strike back in its history, has blossomed into a technologically advanced wonderland, thanks to an abundance of vibranium, the precious metal that gives Wakanda’s leaders their superpowers and allows them to transform into the titular hero. But no sooner is T’Challa on the throne than he finds himself drawn into a dangerous mission. His old adversary, Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis, revelling in the chance to strut his stuff, for once, without having to wear a motion capture suit), has stolen an ancient artefact made from vibranium and is planning to sell it to the highest bidder. He is aided in the robbery by the mysterious Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan), who clearly has some personal axe to grind with T’Challa…

There’s some fabulous world-building going on here and I particularly love the performance of Letitia Wright as T’Challa’s teenage sister, Shuri, who plays a sort of Q figure, providing her big bother with a whole string of incredible hardware to enable him to complete his mission. A lengthy sequence in a Korean casino followed by a frenetic car chase could have wandered in from a Bond movie and, if the makers of that franchise are ever stuck for a director, Coogler would make an interesting choice  – but I digress.

The film soon ventures into more familiar superhero territory, but even the usual CGI-augmented punchup at the conclusion doesn’t go on interminably – a problem that mars the otherwise enjoyable Wonder Woman and Thor: Ragnarok – and better still, this one has rhinos! Best of all for me, Marvel finally has a more interesting and nuanced villain than the usual ‘bent-on-world-domination’ cliche that is habitually trotted out. Fans of the Marvel EU will want to stay in their seats through the (very long) end credits because there are two extra scenes on offer, one of which ties up a loose end from an earlier film.

Purists will inevitably complain that Black Panther doesn’t stick closely enough to the established conventions of the genre but, for me at least, this is a very welcome step in the right direction.

4.6 stars

Philip Caveney

Breathe

28/10/17

Breathe is the true story of a man’s quest to manage a cruel and debilitating illness with the help and devotion of his friends and family. It’s the kind of thing that used to be dubbed ‘Oscar bait’ and I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see it nominated for a gong or two somewhere down the road. It’s also an unusual choice for actor Andy Serkis’s directorial debut (okay, so it’s not really his debut. There’s an animated version of Jungle Book waiting in the wings, its release date pushed back a year because Jon Favreau got there first – but that, as they say, is another story). Breathe is compelling stuff, sensitively directed and beautifully acted by the cast.

The story begins in England in the 1950s, where Robin Cavendish (Andrew Garfield) meets Diana (Claire Foy) at a village cricket match and promptly falls head over heels in love with her. Almost within minutes, it seems, the two of them are inseparable and Robin has whisked Diana off to Kenya, where he works as a ‘tea broker.’ (Don’t ask.) It’s all terribly romantic and terribly British and, when Diana announces that she is pregnant, it looks as though their future together is assured. But then, without warning, Robin is struck down by polio and overnight finds himself paralysed, able only to move his facial muscles and unable to breathe without the use of a ventilator. Diana manages to get him back to a hospital in England but Robin quickly sinks into depression. In the 1950s, polio sufferers were expected to live out the rest of their days in hospital, but Diana knows that what Robin wants more than anything else is a chance to escape…

There’s no denying that it’s a remarkable story. Serkis first came to it when he worked with the couple’s son, Jonathan, who is these days a film producer (he’s produced this film, in fact). Garfield does an incredible job, reduced as he is for the most part, to acting only with his face, and Foy is also impressive as the resourceful Diana (though curiously, despite the fact that Robin ages convincingly throughout the film, she seems to look exactly the same in every scene). There’s splendid support from Tom Hollander, in a dual role as Diana’s twin brothers, and from Stephen Mangan as the Doctor who takes up Robin’s cause to help free hundreds of disabled patients from their hospital incarceration. It would take a stern soul indeed not to feel moved to tears at various points in the story and I doubt there’s anyone who won’t experience a genuine thrill of satisfaction when Robin is finally allowed to go home to his wife and child.

If I have a problem with the film, it’s largely due to the trailer. There’s a tendency these days for trailers to show far too much and I feel this is the case with Breathe, where it is essentially a potted version of the entire movie. As a result – accomplished though the film is – there are no real surprises, because I pretty much know exactly what is going to happen. Now, Serkis can hardly be blamed for this… but I really wish that film companies would rein themselves in and leave us a little more to discover for ourselves.

Rant over. Breathe is a charming and affecting film, one that’s well worth seeking out. (If you haven’t seen the trailer, so much the better!) It’s been accused of glossing over some of the more unpleasant details of the illness it deals with, but the scene where the Cavendishes visit a hospital in Germany to see how polio sufferers are treated there doesn’t pull any punches. Sometimes things really do change for the better and Robin Cavendish, who helped affect that change, really does deserve to be recognised for his achievements.

4 stars

Philip Caveney 

War for the Planet of the Apes

14/07/17

Ape-related homages to Apocalypse Now are a bit like buses. You wait for ages and then two come along more or less at the same time. The first homage, was of course, Kong: Skull Island. The second is this, the third instalment in the Planet of the Apes reboot, a franchise that has proved to be surprisingly watchable considering the damp squib that was Tim Burton’s foray into the simian world. This new adventure is also eminently entertaining, but there’s a real problem at its heart, which few reviewers seem prepared to entertain – and that is its almost total lack of any roles for women.

We encounter just two female characters in the whole film. Young orphan, Nova (Amiah Miller), who is mute, and Lake (Sarah Canning), a chimpanzee, who is tasked with looking after Caesar’s young son, Cornelius. Because, of course, childminding is the one job that has to be done by a female. Apart from a couple of glimpses of faces in crowds, that’s it. And there are LOADS of characters in this movie. Why are they all male? This doesn’t feel like a deliberate slight on the part of director, Matt Reeves, but it’s a a major oversight, a warped and weirdly lopsided vision of society, and in this day and age, it should never have been allowed to happen – and it’s definitely knocked the overall points for this movie down a few notches.

That said, there is plenty to enjoy here. It’s three years after the events of Dawn, and Caesar (Andy Serkis) now leads his simian followers against what’s left of humanity. One soldier in particular, The Colonel (Woody Harrelson, as a Kurtz-type zealot) has set himself the task of wiping the apes off the face of the planet, blaming them for the demise of mankind. When he mounts a sneak attack on the apes’ hideout, Caesar suffers a personal loss, an event that unhinges him and sends him on the path of revenge, accompanied by three of his most trusted companions. On route to the Colonel’s headquarters, they encounter ‘Bad Ape’ (Steve Zahn), a former zoo inhabitant, whose presence here is clearly to provide some much needed comic relief. As the apes ride on horseback through increasingly snowbound terrain, the film echoes John Ford’s epic western  The Searchers  in its look and feel – and then, bizarrely, it all turns decidedly biblical, as Caesar evolves into a kind of hairy Christ figure, mocked, scourged and (just in case you missed the reference) crucified by his human oppressors.

Though the title might lead you to expect a full-on war movie, that’s really not what the film’s about;  it’s more cerebral than anything else – though there are some cracking battle scenes, including a major blitzkrieg towards the movie’s conclusion. All-in-all, it’s very watchable and, though it might not be quite as sharp as the two preceding stories, it’s nonetheless an absorbing piece of cinema and (lest we forget) a brilliant technical accomplishment. The apes are perfectly rendered in every detail – snow slicked fur is apparently the hardest thing to get right – and they are convincingly set within their locations. Serkis has been very vocal about giving motion-capture performers the kudos they deserve and War is a perfect advertisement for what this relatively young technique can achieve. It’s an epic, thought-provoking film.

But no real roles for women, human or ape? Come on, we can do better that that!

3.5 stars

Philip Caveney