Andy Serkis

Review: London Film Festival 2017 – Breathe

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61st BFI London Film Festival - Opening Night Gala

The Pitch: Choose life.

The Review: If you’re looking for a film to open Britain’s leading film festival then as soon as someone offers you more British acting talent than a bonnet full of Jane Austen adaptations, most of them with finely honed RP accents and with an opening scene culminating in a cricket ball smashing a tea cup, then you’d probably bite their hand off. You’d probably also expect that a hard-working British film would be stiff upper lips, struggles against adversity and as grim as Ken Loach’s kitchen sink. Breathe serves up two out of three in a reasonable debut for Andy Serkis, but suffers from never quite being sure what it wants to be.

With a list of British talent longer than your arm, some in blink-and-miss roles (Diana Rigg’s screen credit may get more time than she does), Serkis has certainly assembled a talented acting roster, but the only two who really have the opportunity to do more than reading their lines are Andrew Garfield as polio patient Robin Cavendish and Claire Foy as his supportive wife Diana. When stricken with the illness at a young age, Robin can’t face living a life staring at the hospital ceiling, but Diana takes on the medical profession and enlists the help of a creative friend or two to give Robin a new lease of life.

There’s plenty that works here, with Garfield and Foy putting in strong performances. The script also brings out British qualities you wouldn’t necessarily expect from such a film, with stoicism and determination supplemented by inventiveness and eccentricity. For large parts this is less a grim slogfest, more a vibrant celebration of life and its possibilities, with a handful of satisfyingly off-kilter moments thrown in. While Robin gradually escapes the confines of his hospital bed, the depictions of those less fortunate give the opportunity for some bizarre, discomfiting images, particularly at a clinical hospital that thinks it’s cutting edge.

Serkis has worked on this in down time of his Jungle Book adaptation, and his direction style could be damned with faint praise as fine. He does get chance for a little special effects wizardry with Tom Hollander portraying both of Diana’s twin brothers, but other than that he’s content never to stray from the confines of a chocolate box lid picture, and the film is sometimes as sweet when it desperately needs more courage in its convictions. Society still hasn’t found equality for disabled people in many areas and films highlighting this struggle are as important as those exploring divides of gender, race and orientation but Breathe calls attention to human frailty and meaningful questions of existence without ever suggesting it truly wants to engage with them.

This is particularly noticeable in the final stretch, when questions of Robin’s right to life become flipped on their heads. The last act aims to engage the heart and squeeze the tear ducts when a more confident director would have tapped at your mind and soul as well. It’s a shame, for while Breathe should play well to anyone in the the middle-aged art house crowd who prefers their films with the rough edges sanded off, the material had the potential for a truly great British film and the aftertaste here is one of squandered opportunity. Hopefully as Serkis hones his craft, he’ll be willing to encourage a degree more boldness in his screenwriting collaborators.

Why see it in the cinema: Enjoy the view, from sweeping Kenyan vistas to the rolling English countryside, and see if you can hold back the tears at the end when your neighbour is struggling.

What about the rating? This one’s a 12A for infrequent bloody images, mainly when Robin is struggling in later life (although the old age make up Garfield’s sporting is perhaps more horrific).

My cinema experience: After two weeks of pre-festival screenings at the well-appointed BFI Southbank, this was the first trip the Odeon Leicester Square (and my first visit there since seeing Armageddon over twenty years ago). The uncomfortable leopard print seats and terrible viewing angle from the stalls didn’t convince me I’d missed much. That was all forgiven when director Serkis appeared to give the film a five minute intro.

The Score: 7/10

Review: The Adventures Of Tintin: The Secret Of The Unicorn 3D

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The Pitch: Young Indiana Jones And The Valley Of Doom.

The Review: Come closer, come right in, and I’ll tell you a tale. A tale of a youngster and his faithful companions on an epic adventure, which has been in the hearts of millions for many, many years. A tale of how a newly discovered map could prove crucial to success or failure. A tale of an attempt to recapture former glories and past treasures. There’ll be highs and lows, and familiar faces in unfamiliar situations. Yes, Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson have teamed up to bring Tintin to Hollywood for the first time, and to hopefully find him a position in cinema for many years to come. It’s famously renowned that Hergé himself said that Spielberg was the best person to adapt his tales for the big screen. With Lord Of The Rings director Jackson on board as well, what could possibly go wrong?

First then, to the tale of the youngster and his companions. That youngster is Matt Smith, and his adventures in Doctor Who for the past two years were what drew original screenwriter Steven Moffat away from Spielberg and back to Blighty. But the most recent series of Who has not been without its critics, especially of the Moffat-scripted story arc episodes; many find them too dense and too complex, filled with set pieces and big moments but a little lacking in heart and soul at crucial moments, or indeed time to just stop and breathe occasionally. Tintin suffers a little from the same flaw; it’s set-piece after set-piece, exposition often delivered on the run, and the pace is so frenetic at times all you can do is cling on and hope things continue to make sense. After Moffat left, Spielberg brought in two other Brits (and why not – who knows Belgium better than, er, the British?), Edgar Wright and Joe Cornish. There’s a whole host of witty asides and in-jokes which will be picked up which feel in tune with their writing style, but it cranks along in top gear for a little too much of the running time. You can’t help but feel that the decision to attempt to condense elements of three Tintin novels into one story was maybe one too many.

What then, of the map? Yes, this particular treasure is not gold or jewels, but believable motion-capture animated characters, and according to the map they can be found on the other side of the uncanny valley. If you look at the lines on the “map” to the left, you’ll see two upward curves. Apparently, we humans feel more responsive to something the more human it looks, but there’s a gap – if you look just short of believably human then that becomes more disconcerting to the viewer and we actually find ourselves repulsed. Problems with earlier mo-cap from the likes of Robert Zemeckis suffered from dead-eyes; the eyes are right here, but it’s the faces that are wrong. Somehow, Tintin actually falls into a double uncanny valley and it’s one the film unfortunately calls attention to. Not only do the facial expressions, and also the shape of Tintin’s head, feel just slightly wrong, but an in-joke of Hergé’s original drawing makes you realise that there’s a Tintin valley at work here as well, the character looking generally right, but whenever the camera settles on him in close up, you can see it’s not quite Tintin and not quite human; doubly freaky, in fact. Consequently Tintin works better whenever the camera is set back and the characters are mid-set piece, which is where the cranked-up pacing starts to work to the films advantage, keeping the number of character close-ups down to a minimum as events progress.

There are familiar faces, although they often don’t relate to the voices in question, one of the joys of the technique. Those that work best at creating a believable character include, somewhat unsurprisingly, Andy Serkis as Captain Haddock, who practically steals the entire film, a Nicholson Joker to Jamie Bell’s somewhat bland Keaton Batman. Oddly, Daniel Craig seems more animated here than he normally does in real life, somehow finding liberation but still retaining an edge; other than that, the voices could have been pretty much anyone and you may not have noticed. In particular, the third collaboration (of sorts) between Edgar Wright and the Pegg / Frost combo suffers from Simon Pegg seemingly not settling on one particular voice for any length of time, with random levels of gruffness affecting his performance. And the former glories and past treasures? Those are being sought by Spielberg, who was the master of this type of thing for much the Seventies and Eighties, but has lost his lightness of touch in recent years and many feel he still has to atone for the last Indiana Jones film. This shares a spirit with the likes of Raiders Of The Lost Ark, but where that’s pacing and storytelling perfection, this feels over-egged and over-enthusiastic, and doesn’t quite hit the same marks. Overall it’s a brave attempt, and it’s a lot of fun if you’re prepared to just sit back and cling on for the ride, but the problems mean that Tintin’s first Hollywood adventure doesn’t quite come up with the goods.

Why see it at the cinema: It is a visual feast, and you couldn’t ask for more in terms of the visual spectacle. You might actually ask for a little less, if anything.

Why see it in 3D: If this was made entirely with 3D in mind, it doesn’t show. There’s a few “wave a giant stick in the face of the audience” moments, but the editing isn’t always with 3D in mind, and the vertiginous shifts and sweeps of the opening titles could leave the odd person feeling seasick in 3D. So 2D will be fine if you fancy it.

The Score: 7/10

Big Screen Review: Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes

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The Pitch: Reboot Of The Reboot Of The Planet Of The Apes.

The Review: It’s surely the dream of any film studio to launch a successful franchise, and few over the years have been as successful as the Planet Of The Apes movies. The original series of five films then spawned two television series, a live action and an animation, and like many such franchises it felt ripe for rebooting as we entered the 21st century. Tim Burton, however, made such a hash of it, with a tedious plot and utterly nonsensical ending, that we’ve had to wait ten years for the next attempt. One thing that all of the previous incarnations had in common was that they had essentially human characters in ape clothing, repeatedly stretching the boundaries of what was possible with make-up and other techniques. The Tim Burton iteration took that look closer to monkey than man, but it was still essentially subject to the restrictions of a man in a suit.

The original was released in the same year as 2001: A Space Odyssey, but the latter’s benchmark for visual effects has been surpassed so many times that we’re now in a position to be able to use entirely special effect monkeys, without the need for any make-up at all. The joys of motion capture and the seamless integration of visual effects means that men covered in tight lycra suits and ping-pong balls can now act out a scene with more normally attired people, and be seamlessly replaced in post-production with something that closely enough resembles an actual primate that it won’t take you out of the story, and that a key early plot point about changes in the apes’ irises can be easily realised with dramatic zooms and close-ups. Just to be on the safe side, it’s worth having experts in the technology, so both Weta’s digital magic and Andy Serkis’ monkeying around in a stupid outfit get rolled out here again after their first memorable team up in the King Kong remake.

No amount of special effects, though, can cover up a weak story, so it’s refreshing that Rise… has managed to find such a compelling new take on old material. Here it’s a potential cure for Alzheimer’s that kicks things off. James Franco is reasonable as the young scientist who keeps his project going when his company try to shut it down, and uses father John Lithgow as a guinea pig (not literally, although it would be amazing to see what Weta could do with that). Other than that, it’s a slightly eclectic cast, with Frieda Pinto and Brian Cox doing what they can with slightly thin roles, but the juiciest other human role goes to Tom Felton, and he gets to be far more believably dastardly here than he ever managed to be as Draco Malfoy.

But the stars of the show are the apes, not least Serkis who has the animal acting down to a fine art and crucially invests Caesar with enough believable behaviours to go with the digital wizardry on show. The rest of the apes are filled out by stunt performers and others with backgrounds in this type of work, which is starting to become a serious niche in the acting world, and despite a slightly cartoonish look to some of the young apes, the adults are all incredibly rendered and you will struggle to distinguish some, such as Maurice the organgutan, from the real thing. So the apes are virtually flawless, and end up being the stars of their own prison movie (maybe no surprise, given director Rupert Wyatt’s previous form on The Escapist). The plot bubbles along nicely, and builds slowly, not feeling the need of many summer blockbusters to show its hand too early, and culminates in a well thought out set-piece on the Golden Gate bridge which doesn’t lose sight of the needs to service its characters in among the carnage. Rise… is a very satisfying addition to the Apes mythology, with some subtle (and some more blatant) nods to previous films, this one stands apart, but might well be the first in another successful simian series.

Why see it at the cinema: Some of the apes are just astonishing, and many of the grown-up monkeys will have you forgetting you’re watching animated characters. The Golden Gate bridge scenes are also suitably epic and worth hunting down on the largest viewing area possible.

The Score: 8/10

Review: Burke And Hare

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The Pitch: Trading Bodies.

The Review: John Landis is responsible for some of the finest comedies of the Seventies and early Eighties. Animal House, The Blues Brothers and Trading Places would be a fine legacy for anyone, but then Landis also has horror chops, having unleashed An American Werewolf on London and the world. Somehow, though, Landis seemed to use up all his good creative instincts during that fertile period, and his career ever since has languished in mediocrity. Coming To America, over 20 years ago, may be his last even half-decent effort, so maybe it makes sense in that context to make something that’s both horror and comedy. Sadly, for everyone concerned, what we have ended up with is neither.

It all seemed so promising, especially when Simon Pegg and David Tennant were announced as playing the titular duo. Tennant, of course, departed to be replaced by Andy Serkis, in a move which Tennant must be very grateful for whatever scheduling gods forced his replacement. Pegg is generally good value and Serkis mugs appropriately, but neither feels especially comfortable with the material or, indeed, their accents. Burke and Hare were from Northern Ireland, a fact that’s barely discernible from Serkis’ accent and only slightly more so from Pegg’s.

At least they fare better than the love interest Isla Fisher, who manages to be Dick Van Dyke bad in terms of both accent and performance. There are some gems in the supporting cast, including Tom Wilkinson and Tim Curry as competitors in medicine (and in a much more interesting movie) and Jessica Hynes, who seems to be about the only person to have correctly captured the broad tone that Landis was aiming for as Serkis’ wife. The rest of the cast is also filled with “ooh, is that…?” faces of varying familiarity; the tragedy is that the game of spot-the-random-famous-face quickly becomes more interesting than the actual movie.

It’s not broad enough to be successful as a farce, or funny enough to work as a straight comedy. The story itself would quite happily lend to straight horror, but sadly the gruesome moments feel like flicking between a horror marathon and CBeebies, so oddly juxtaposed and ill-considered are they against the rest of the piece; and critically, there’s really not enough of them. On top of all that, the liberties with the truth are so extensive that only one major character actually has their real life fate bestowed upon them, and the alternate fates conjured up for the rest don’t feel anywhere interesting enough to justify the changes. Somewhere in here there was a great movie trying to get out, but sadly all that’s left is for future film scholars to pore over this one’s festering corpse and ponder where it all went wrong.

Why see it at the cinema: If you like to see some of the greatest talent of British film today, plus Ronnie Corbett, dying slowly on their backsides, then this is the film for you.

The Score: 4/10