Andy Serkis on Returning to Play Gollum in ‘The Hobbit’

Gollum in The Hobbit

WRITER’S NOTE: This article was written back in 2012.

It is a thrill to see Andy Serkis return to the role of Gollum in Peter Jackson’s “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.” While we marvel at the special effects which gave Gollum his unique if wretched look, it was Serkis who breathed life into the character in a way no one else could. His success in “The Lord of the Rings” got him cast in “King Kong” in which he portrayed the big ape, and audiences were begging to see him get an Oscar nomination for his brilliant performance as Caesar in “Rise of the Planet of the Apes.” Seeing Serkis return to the role that made him a star brings everything around full circle for the actor, and we are constantly fascinated at how he approaches roles that surround him with a wealth of special effects.

Serkis first played Gollum over a decade ago, and the character was 600 years old back then. “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” takes place sixty years before the events in “The Lord of the Rings” so he looks a little better here, but that is not saying much. But what has really changed about how Serkis plays Gollum is the technology involved in filmmaking. While “The Lord of the Rings” movies were shot on film, “The Hobbit” was made digitally. Serkis talked with Fox News’ Ashley Dvorkin about the differences this time around.

“So I was acting with Elijah Wood and Sean Astin and we would all play out the scenes together, so that hasn’t changed,” Serkis told Dvorkin. “But the thing that’s changed is that I had to then go and shoot it again on the motion capture stage. So I had to repeat everything twice. So I shot everything twice in effect. Whereas 12 years later, now we have full performance capture on set so I can just play the scene once – I’ve got a head mounted camera which is capturing all my facial expressions. The suit is able to act in a live action set and we just played the scene like, two conventional actors playing the scene with each other. So it’s much, much better.”

Gollum, be it in “The Lord of the Rings” or “The Hobbit,” has always resembled a heroin addict who is relentlessly eager for his next fix. In talking with Katy Steinmetz of Time Magazine, Serkis said the character’s physicality was “borne out of his addiction to the ring.” The way he describes it, this really was the best way for him to fully inhabit the character, and he talked about the inspirations which played a part in his performance.

“His personality, the involuntary way in which his body spasms when the word Gollum comes out of his mouth, is connected to the guilt that he carries with him in his throat from murdering his cousin,” Serkis told Steinmetz. “He is described by Tolkien in many different ways, as a puppy with Frodo and a spider and a frog. I based him a lot on Francis Bacon’s paintings, the agony and torture, which are in turn based on Eadweard Muybridge’s photographs. The references for me were very layered.”

Seeing Gollum move all over, as if he is completely incapable of staying in one place for more than a couple of seconds at a time, makes this seem like one of the most physically demanding roles any actor could take on in their career. I am constantly interested in how Serkis can keep his energy up while playing a character like this as he must get worn out often while on set. He went into more detail with James Rocchi of MSN Entertainment about just how physical playing Gollum is for him.

“It’s very physical. Gollum is an incredibly physical role,” Serkis told Rocchi. “And it’s a combination of physicality and of course vocal. They’re so entwined with each other, so meshed with each other. It’s a pretty exhausting role, but I had such fun playing it with Martin (Freeman who plays Bilbo Baggins). It (the cave scene where they first meet) was the very first thing we shot on the movie as well. It was day one of 276 days of shooting, and there was I was face to face with Martin finding his way into playing Bilbo. And we shot the scene in its entirety every single time. And then Pete would move the camera between takes and let us roll it again. We would just play the whole scene out. And it was really, really exciting when we’re doing it.”

After playing Gollum in several movies, you might think Serkis would be sick to death of this role by now. However, this does not prove to be the case as the character has had a huge impact on his life. He even told Dvorkin he has a full-sized sculpture of Gollum made by WETA (the digital visual effects company based in Wellington, New Zealand) sitting in his office at his home. Even he is not blind as to the positive impact Gollum has had on his acting career as a whole.

“He’s been like a watershed character for me twice in my life now,” Serkis told Dvorkin. “First of all because not only because he is an amazing character to play the first time around but it was also the beginning of this journey into a performance capture which has enabled me to play so many other amazing roles. By virtue of the fact of him arriving that whole other list of characters has been what I’ve been working on the last decade. And then coming back full circle to playing him again in ‘The Hobbit’ also has brought me to directing. So both times, he’s not only been this amazing creature and great character to explore, but has shifted my life.”

It looks like we will be seeing more of Andy Serkis as Gollum in the future as Peter Jackson’s “The Hobbit” is now being expanded into three movies instead of just two. Many fans still have some issues with this as J.R.R. Tolkien novel is only 300 pages long, but Serkis is more than confident in Jackson’s ability to pull this particular trilogy off. Since the actor has already spent a number of years working with Jackson, his belief in the director seems more than justified.

SOURCES:

Ashley Dvorkin, “‘The Hobbit’s’ Andy Serkis has full-size Gollum sculpture in his house,” Fox News, December 14, 2012.

Katy Steinmetz, “The Hobbit’s Andy Serkis on Getting Inside Gollum’s Skin,” Time Magazine, December 11, 2012.

James Rocchi, “Interview: Andy Serkis of ‘The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey,'” MSN Entertainment, December 17, 2012.

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Martin Freeman on Playing Bilbo Baggins in ‘The Hobbit’

Martin Freeman The Hobbit photo

WRITER’S NOTE: This article was written in 2012.

He’s made a name for himself on BBC television shows like “The Office” and “Sherlock,” and he had the lead role of Arthur Dent in “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.” But now actor Martin Freeman gets his biggest role to date as Bilbo Baggins in “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.” This character was previously portrayed by Ian Holm in Peter Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, but Freeman now has the privilege of playing Bilbo in a movie which takes place sixty years before that trilogy’s beginning.

When it comes to portraying a character who has been played by a well-known actor in previous films, the task can seem quite daunting. Any actor in this position usually has to deal with a shadow hanging over them as their performance will always be compared to what came before. Holm’s Bilbo, however, functioned more as a cameo in “The Lord of the Rings” movies as he was only in them briefly. Furthermore, Freeman more than makes this role his own as he takes Bilbo from being someone who’s just minding their own business to someone willing to risk their life to help others. Still, you had to wonder if Freeman spent a lot of time studying Holm’s work in the previous films. Eventually, he cleared this up with Steve ‘Frosty’ Weintraub of the Collider website.

“I’ve watched the films again, obviously in more detail before I came to this. I looked at Ian’s (performance) more when I needed to. Again, I don’t really know how much I should say, but there were points where it was relevant for me to look very closely at Ian’s performance,” Freeman told Weintraub. “But generally, no because I think we’re quite good. I know why I was cast; do you know what I mean? Because I think we’re not that dissimilar, physically or whatever else. I think if I was, I don’t know, Jeff Goldblum or someone, then I might be thinking right, hang on, if he’s the older me I’d better attend more to something else maybe. Well, grow, for a start. But no, ’cause I think I was always trusted with it.”

“All I was told, which I think was flattery, and probably bollocks, was you are the only person to play it. So, I thought, well if they think that, then I’ve got to trust that,” Freeman continued. “And there’s only so much you can run with someone else’s thing. It’s very helpful in the way that it’s brilliant as he is always brilliant, and it’s a beautiful establisher of that character and a very loved one for obvious reasons. But it can also hamper you if you’re thinking, like in the barrels, if there’s even part of me thinking, how would Ian have done this, then I’m fucked. So, I’ve got to let that go. I’ve always been mindful of it because I’m familiar with it. But I think the work for that connection was done in the casting of me, rather than what I’m then going to do on top of it.”

In an interview with Colin Covert of the Toledo Blade, Freeman described Bilbo as being neither “the main guy in the room” or an “alpha male.” Looking back at “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey,” this gave the actor a great starting off point as he has to take this character from being a timid and rather pompous man to one who acts selflessly. Freeman really gives an exceptional performance as Bilbo’s transition from a self-centered person to a warrior of sorts feels seamless and subtle. You never consciously catch the actor trying to shift his character in a certain direction because it all seems to come about naturally.

One of the movie’s pivotal scenes comes when Bilbo meets up with Gollum who is again played by the brilliant Andy Serkis. This scene was actually shot in the first week of production and apparently took a whole week to film. When it comes to CGI characters, the actors usually have to play opposite something or someone which isn’t there. Fortunately for Freeman, Serkis was there on set to give life to Gollum, and he talked with Meredith Woerner of i09 about what it was like working with Serkis.

“Andy feels real,” Freeman told Woerner. “Obviously he doesn’t look like Gollum, strictly speaking, but he’s being Gollum. And I’m an animal of the theater and you’re used to using your imagination. You don’t have to use your imagination that much when you hear that voice and see the physicality and you think, oh there’s Gollum. There’s a man or a creature that wants to eat me. It didn’t feel very cheated at all. Gollum is such a beloved character. There’s a special place in people’s hearts for Gollum, I think. People who love the books and the films are delighted he’s in this, I think.”

Seriously, Martin Freeman gives a pitch perfect performance as Bilbo Baggins in “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” to where you wonder if he and Ian Holm were actually separated at birth. This bodes well for the next two movies in Jackson’s “Hobbit” trilogy, and it will be interesting to see where Freeman takes this character from here.

One other thing; Freeman made it clear how Leonard Nimoy’s song “The Legend of Bilbo Baggins” did not play a big part in his research for the role.

“It helped me enjoy that three minutes of listening to it,” Freeman said of the song. “I’m still baffled by it.”

SOURCES:

Steve ‘Frosty’ Weintraub, “Martin Freeman Talks the Ring’s Impact on Bilbo, Being a Favorite for the Role & a Lot More on the Set of THE HOBBIT,” Collider, October 25, 2012.

Colin Covert, “Q&A; with ‘Hobbit’ Martin Freeman,” Toledo Blade, December 17, 2012.

Meredith Woerner, “The Hobbit’s Martin Freeman on dwarves, Gollum and Leonard Nimoy,” i09, December 16, 2012.

‘Black Panther’ Gives Us One of the Best Superheroes Yet

Black Panther poster

Complain all you want about the proliferation of superhero/comic book movies, the last year or so has given us some of the best. In 2017 we got “Logan” which saw Wolverine freed from his PG-13 shackles to where Hugh Jackman and James Mangold gave the “X-Men” character the sendoff he truly deserved. Then came “Wonder Woman” which not only filled our need for a female-led superhero movie, but also succeeded in putting the DC Extended Universe on the right track (of course, then “Justice League” arrived). And with “Thor: Ragnarok,” Marvel Studios allowed themselves to turn this particular franchise upside down and inside out, and what resulted was the most entertaining “Thor” movie yet.

Now it’s 2018 and we have “Black Panther.” You could say it provides audiences with the long overdue African-American-led superhero movie, but having watched it, this description is not entirely appropriate. T’Challa, the Black Panther of this movie, is a hero for everyone. Like Steve Rogers/Captain America, this is a character whose desire to do good in the world comes across with a powerful sincerity which no amount of cynicism can possibly take away. Along with confident direction, terrific performances and slam-bang action, “Black Panther” proves to be one of the best superhero/comic book movies ever made, a true high point in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and one of the best movies of 2018.

As I write this review, “Black Panther” has been in general release for several weeks and has held the number one spot at the box office for as many times as James Cameron’s “Avatar” did. Clearly you have all seen it at least two or three times by now, so let’s not even bother with a plot description. Let’s just talk about what makes this particular Marvel Studios release so awesome.

Kudos to Ryan Coogler who has now graduated from low and medium-budgeted movies to full on Hollywood blockbusters with tremendous confidence. With “Fruitvale Station” he made us look at the life and tragic death of Oscar Grant in such a powerful way to where he can never be dismissed as a mere statistic. With “Creed” he brought a freshness and energy to the long running “Rocky” franchise which I never could have expected. Now with “Black Panther,” he has given us a movie which supersedes others of its genre to an outstanding degree as he combines the typical spectacle that comes with $200 million budget, and he combines it with a strong story filled with complex characters to where you cannot walk out of this one and say this was just an average motion picture.

Kudos to Chadwick Boseman for inhabiting T’Challa/Black Panther in a way to where there is no doubt he has the world’s best interests at heart, not just Wakanda’s. Through ferocity and feeling, Boseman makes T’Challa into a true hero for everyone and anyone. While this character has doubts about whether or not he is truly ready to be Wakanda’s king, something I have truly come to loathe about origin movies, Boseman never imbues him with the kind of hesitation which would easily destroy another. When the time comes to defend his people, he is most definitely up front and center.

Kudos to Michael B. Jordan for his performance as N’Jadaka / Erik “Killmonger” Stevens. N’Jadaka serves as the chief antagonist in “Black Panther,” but the character is not so much a villain as he is a victim. Jordan makes you see how N’Jadaka was wronged and of why his need for revenge is understandable if not condonable. This character was wronged and abandoned, so his bitterness at what was denied to him ends up feeling justified even when it poisons his soul. We root for N’Jadaka to fail, but we cannot help but feel empathy for him, and Jordan ends up creating a complex villain who can never be mistaken for some one-dimensional schmuck.

Kudos to every single actress in “Black Panther” as they give us badass Wakandans who refuse to run away from impending danger. Whether it’s Angela Bassett as Ramonda or Lupita Nyong’o as Nakia, they fill their characters with a strength and pride which can be wounded, but never easily broken. Special mention goes out to Danai Gurira who steals every scene she has as Okoye, a proud Wakandan who wears her pride on her face for all to see. If you threaten Okoye and she pulls a saber out on you, Gurira makes it clear you best start running in the other direction.

Kudos to Martin Freeman for making his character of CIA officer Everett K. Ross more than just mere comic relief. Even when we see him stumbling about in the midst of warriors who are prepared for conflict, Freeman allows Everett to evolve into a far more capable agent than he was at the movie’s beginning.

Kudos to Andy Serkis for his go for broke performance as gangster Ulysses Klaue. It’s a blast watching the “Planet of the Apes” actor smash through everything in his path. But even though he is not doing a motion capture performance here like he has done unforgettably in the past, he probably won’t snag an Oscar nomination for his work here anyway.

Kudos to Forest Whitaker for not just making Zuri a powerful religious and spiritual figure, but for also letting us see the cracks in the character’s façade when he reveals a burden he can never forgive himself for. Whether you see Zuri as “Black Panther’s” Yoda or Obi-Wan Kenobi, Whitaker lets us know right from the start no one could play Zuri better than he could.

Kudos to Daniel Kaluuya, currently riding high off of the tremendous success of “Get Out,” for making W’Kabi, T’Challa’s best friend, a vivid study of internal conflicts which are constantly pushed in different directions to where common sense can be thoughtlessly tossed aside.

Kudos to Winston Duke for making M’Baku into a ruthless warrior, but also one with a deep conscience. This character could have existed simply as a plot device for “Black Panther” to take advantage of when the going gets tough, but when T’Challa and his closest friends plead with M’Baku to join them in their battle of resistance, Duke makes the character’s eventual decision believable without ever seeming predictable or convoluted.

And kudos to all those filmmakers and artists behind the scenes who made Wakanda look so beautiful in “Black Panther.” Of all the places the Marvel Cinematic Universe has taken us to, this is the one I would like to visit the most. Wakanda forever? Damn straight!

Seriously, I cannot say enough great things about “Black Panther” as Coogler and company have made a film which was so well-thought out and put together. All the characters are complex and interesting, and what could have been just another superhero/comic book movie was elevated into something far more thrilling than I ever could have expected. But more importantly, “Black Panther” gives us a true superhero who everyone, and I mean everyone, can and should look up to. This, among other reasons, should explain why this movie has been such a box office behemoth since its release.

Even better, we won’t have to wait long to see this superhero again as he will appear in “Avengers: Infinity War” whose release is just around the corner.

* * * * out of * * * *

‘The Shape of Water’ is Another Cinematic Masterpiece from Guillermo Del Toro

The Shape of Water movie poster

“Pan’s Labyrinth,” “Blade II” and “The Devil’s Backbone” should be more than enough proof of how Guillermo Del Toro is a cinematic god among directors. If you need further proof of this, then I suggest you watch “The Shape of Water,” his romantic fantasy which is truly one of the best films of 2017. While I tend to scoff at romantic movies as I consider them cringe-inducing exercises in endurance which prove to be even more painful than running the Los Angeles Marathon. Please keep in mind, I have run this marathon seven years in a row, and soon I will be running it yet again.

“The Shape of Water” transports us back to Baltimore, Maryland in the year 1962 when America was stuck in the middle of the Cold War. We meet Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins), a janitor at a secret laboratory who was rendered mute at a young age due to a neck injury. She follows a daily routine of pleasuring herself in the bathtub while boiling eggs on her kitchen stove, and then she goes to work where she performs her duties without complaint. Luckily, she has a pair of friends to converse with, in a matter of non-speaking, like artist and closeted homosexual Giles (Richard Jenkins) and her ever so talkative co-worker Zelda Fuller (Octavia Spencer) who also takes the time to interpret Elisa’s sign language. But even with friends like these, let alone the luck she has living above a movie theater, there is clearly something missing from her life.

Things, however, quickly change for Elisa when the laboratory she works at receives a creature in a tank. This creature was captured in South America by the cold-hearted Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon), and the government officials he answers to want to dissect the creature in an effort to gain a foothold on the space race. Elisa, however, has different ideas as she develops a strong connection with the creature which will not be easily broken.

I guess this might seem like a strange love story for many to take seriously, but considering the seismic shifts in how the world views, and should view, marriage and the rights of others, “The Shape of Water” could not have been timelier. As improbable as a relationship like this one may sound, Del Toro and his cast make it one we quickly become engaged in to where we are swept up emotionally in a way few movies can.

Along with cinematographer Dan Laustsen, Del Toro gives this film a look which is at once suffocating and yet wondrous. We clearly in the world of movies while watching this one, but the while this might seem like a genre picture designed to take us out of reality, it is filled with genuine emotion which is never easily earned. We can always count on Del Toro to give us a beautifully realized motion picture, but this one deserves special recognition as it had a budget of around $20 million, and yet he made it look like cost so much more. I would love to ask him how he accomplished what he did on a limited budget. In any other case, $20 million is a lot of money. But for a film like this, it seems almost too low to work with.

Sally Hawkins has wowed us as an actress in “Happy-Go-Lucky,” “Made in Dagenham” and “Blue Jasmine,” but she really outdoes herself here as Elisa Esposito as this role takes her into Holly “The Piano” Hunter territory. With her character being a mute, Hawkins not only has to communicate without the use of words (vocally anyway), she has to keep her heart open in a way which we make a habit of avoiding. This actress shows little hesitation in making herself so open and vulnerable to a creature everyone else would be quick to be infinitely fearful of.

Speaking of the creature, he is played by Doug Jones, an actor who is masterful at portraying non-human characters. Whether it’s as Abe Sapien in the “Hellboy” movies, the Faun and the Pale Man in “Pan’s Labyrinth” or even as Lieutenant Commander Saru on “Star Trek: Discovery,” Jones always succeeds in finding a humanity in these characters others would never be quick to discover or find. His performance here as the Amphibian Man is every bit as good as Andy Serkis’ in “War for the Planet of the Apes,” and I put these two actors together because many believe it is the makeup or special effects which do all the acting for them, but it’s their acting which makes their characters so memorable. Jones, like Hawkins, has to communicate without the use of words, but he has an even bigger challenge as his character cannot even use sign language. His work deserves more credit than it will likely get at awards time.

“The Shape of Water” also has a terrific cast of character actors, and they are the kind who never ever let us down. Richard Jenkins is right at home as Giles, a closeted gay man who, when he tries to reach out to someone he cares about, is quickly rebuffed not just by that someone, but also by a society which thoughtlessly excluded many for all the wrong reasons. Jenkins never resorts to giving us a cliched version of a homosexual, but instead makes us see Giles as a man who is kind and considerate but still ostracized to where he is willing to break the rules to help a friend who doesn’t judge him in the slightest.

When it comes to Octavia Spencer, you can never go wrong with her, and she is a wonderful presence here as Zelda Fuller, Elisa’s co-worker who is never at a loss for words. She also makes it clear how Zelda is a force to be reckoned with, and this is something the character’s husband really should have taken into account a long time ago.

There is also Michael Stuhlbarg who portrays Dr. Robert Hoffstetler, the scientist who sees far more value in the Amphibian Man being alive as opposed to becoming a glorified science experiment worthy of dissection. This is a typical role you find in genre films, but Stuhlbarg inhabits the role to where Robert can never be dismissed as a simple stock character. Even as we learn there is more to Robert than what we initially see on the surface, Stuhlbarg makes us see this is a man who values understanding and compassion over greed. You know, the kind of person we would love to see in the White House at this moment.

But one actor I want to point out in particular is Michael Shannon who portrays Colonel Richard Strickland, a man hellbent on putting his country before everything else, including his wife and kids. Shannon succeeds in rendering Strickland into a more complex character than you might expect. As we watch Strickland get berated by his superiors for not doing his job like they want him to, Shannon shows us a patriotic American who wants to serve his country well, but we watch as his spirit becomes as corrupted and diseased as those two fingers of his which were torn off his hand by the creature and reattached with limited success. As the movie goes on, those fingers of his become a disgusting color as they come to represent the corruption of his soul. Other actors would be intent on making you despise such a villainous character, but Shannon makes you see a man whose desperation has forever blindsided his worldview.

Whether or not you think “The Shape of Water” breaks any new ground in the world of motion pictures is irrelevant. All that matter is how it is a beautifully realized film which takes you on an incredible voyage only the best of its kind can. It also reminds you of how valuable a filmmaker Del Toro is in this day and age when distinct voices in the world of cinema are continually minimized and rendered silent for the sake of profit. Here’s hoping you get to see it on the big screen where it belongs before Donald Trump leads us into a war no one in America is prepared to be drafted into.

* * * * out of * * * *

‘Star Wars: The Last Jedi’ Defies Easy Expectations

Star Wars The Last Jedi movie poster

With “Star Wars” movies now becoming a yearly tradition, I wonder if they will begin to feel less like an event and resemble a typical episode of the “Law & Order” franchise. You know a version of the show is always on television in one form or another, but are you as excited to watch an episode as you were when you first discovered it? Perhaps this is an unfair comparison, but considering where Disney is taking this franchise, it is beginning to feel like it no longer takes place in a galaxy all that far away.

I bring this up because I couldn’t stop thinking about this during the opening crawl of “Star Wars: The Last Jedi.” Each new “Star Wars” motion picture feels like a major event to where it should be declared a national holiday, but since it’s becoming a regular thing now since Disney bought Lucasfilm, will the franchise still feel this special with each future installment? Well, hopefully this remains the case as “The Last Jedi” proves to be a rousing piece of entertainment which stays true to the franchise’s ideals, and it even has a number of surprises up its sleeve to where I eagerly await the next episode set to come out in 2019.

While each “Star Wars” film typically takes place several years after the last one, “The Last Jedi” begins where “The Force Awakens” concluded. Rey (Daisy Ridley) comes to meet the legendary Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) who has long since exiled himself on the planet Ahch-To (gesundheit), a much nicer destination than Dagobah. Meanwhile, the Resistance finds itself feeling the First Order after the latter obliterates their main base. From there, the rebels are on the run, but they can only get so far before they realize the First Order has tracked their whereabouts and to where they are trapped with little hope of escape. It is up to the daring and dashing Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) and former stormtrooper Finn (John Boyega) to save the day with the help of friends both old and new.

Revealing more about a “Star Wars” film just as it is released tends to result in actions which will prove to be infinitely painful to say the least, so this will be a spoiler-free review. What I can tell you is while this episode deals with the subjects of hope and the need to discover more than what can be found on the surface, the key subject writer and director Rian Johnson deals with here is failure. All the characters are dealing with failure in one way or another, and it comes to haunt every action they take. The characters we grew up with are dealing with failings they cannot escape, and the ones we were introduced to in “The Force Awakens” are now discovering the irreversible consequences of their actions.

Johnson previously wrote and directed “The Brothers Bloom” and “Brick,” but his best known film before helming “The Last Jedi” was “Looper,” a sci-fi time travel motion picture which was ingenious as it was thrilling. Having seen it, I went into this “Star Wars” extravaganza with the confidence he could pull it off, and he did. Even though “The Last Jedi” threatens to overstay its welcome at two hours and 32 minutes, making it the longest “Star Wars” movie to date, you cannot punish Johnson for his ambition as he covers a lot of ground while leaving us salivating for more.

When it came to the prequels, you had to forgive the actors because they were being directed by a man, George Lucas, who is a master storyteller but deeply deficient when it came to dealing with the human element. But Johnson, like J.J. Abrams before him, knows how to elicit strong performances from his cast, and each actor is more than up to the challenge.

Watching Mark Hamill and Carrie Fisher was deeply fascinating as their adventures in the original “Star Wars” trilogy remain forever burned into my consciousness, and it still feels like I first watched those movies just yesterday. Their youthful exuberance in fighting the dark side was contagious as I wanted to fight alongside them, and I know I’m not the only who feels this way. When we catch up with their characters of Luke Skywalker and Leia Organa in “The Last Jedi,” the years of endless battles and devastating defeats show in their faces as we wonder how much of a fight they have left in them considering what they have been through. While they are heroes, both have grown weary in the face of an enemy which is every bit as imposing as the Galactic Empire, and their confidence in their abilities is shakier than ever before.

It’s especially poignant to watch Fisher here as this was her last movie before she passed away, and knowing this will be the final time we will see her as Leia is a real heartbreaker. Even as Leia’s accent changes yet again, Fisher imbues the former princess with a dignity and humility which will not be easily shattered in the face of defeat. Even as the odds get worse for the Resistance, Fisher makes Leia stand tall, and she makes clear to the audience that this sci-fi icon will not go down without a fight.

After watching Hamill’s brief appearance in “The Force Awakens,” I came into this film wondering where he would take the great Luke Skywalker. Well, he’s no Yoda here as a devastating failure has led him to believe the Jedi should end and has robbed almost completely robbed him of his sense of humor. Whether or not this is the Luke Skywalker you hoped to see in “The Last Jedi,” Hamill dares to take this character in another direction, but despite defying expectations, the actor makes Luke the powerful Jedi we always wanted him to be.

It’s also great to see “The Force Awakens” veterans Oscar Isaac and John Boyega back as Poe Dameron and Finn as their charismatic energy lends itself nicely to the special effects extravaganza which could have, but does not, overwhelm their talents. Watching Isaac here also serves as a reminder that covering him in pounds of makeup like Bryan Singer did in “X-Men: Apocalypse” is completely unnecessary and just takes away from him. Domhnall Gleeson still makes General Hux into more of a twisted tightwad than we previously saw, and Andy Serkis mesmerizes as Supreme Leader Snoke while continuing to shroud the character in mystery.

Among the newcomers to this franchise are Laura Dern as Resistance Vice Admiral Amilyn Holdo, Benicio Del Toro as the codebreaker DJ, and Kelly Marie Tran comes into play as Rose Tico, a maintenance worker who becomes a key player in the Resistance. While it is great to see Dern and Del Toro here, let alone in any other movie they appear in, their characters are a bit underwritten to where their talents can only go so far with the material given to them. Tran, however, makes Rose Tico into a terrific character I am very eager to see in the next “Star Wars” episode. As for the Porgs, they are delightful little creatures who do not overstay their welcome, and they serve as a reason why Chewbacca might consider becoming a vegetarian in the future.

But the performances which really held my attention more than any others came from Daisy Ridley as Rey and Adam Driver as Kylo Ren. Both bring a raw intensity to their characters which left me on edge as their passions could lead them either in the right direction, or instead down a road which offers no hope of return. The connection Rey and Kylo share throughout “The Last Jedi” is one which grows stronger in each scene, and it makes me wonder if they could possibly survive without one another in Episode IX. Both actors bring a natural energy which Natalie Portman should have been allowed to bring in the prequels, and they remain as compelling as ever.

Many complained “The Force Awakens” hewed too closely to the plot of “A New Hope” to where it became an exercise in nostalgia more than anything else. So it’s only natural filmgoers are coming to “The Last Jedi” expecting something close to “The Empire Strikes Back.” However, Johnson and company have succeeded in giving us a “Star Wars” episode which surprises us more often than not. While many may be sitting in a movie theater crying out, “I knew that was going to happen,” I think they need to realize not everything is going to go the way they expect. It reminded me of the next to last episode of “The Sopranos’” second season as it left me in shock and wondering what could possibly happen next. While we feel we know and understand the formula of the average “Star Wars” movie, this one upends it to where we can only guess what will happen in the future.

“The Last Jedi” also shows us there is more to failure than we see at first, and this is an important lesson to take in as we often let failure keep us from moving forward in life. It also shows us how hope can be tested more than ever before to where we grasp onto any last piece of it. In “The Shawshank Redemption,” Morgan Freeman talked about how “hope is a dangerous thing” and that “hope can drive a man insane,” but our heroic characters still cling onto hope as nothing else will do, and surrender is not even a part of the equation.

While the continuing onslaught of “Star Wars” movies threatens to make this franchise feel a lot less special, none of my worries detracted from my enjoyment of “The Last Jedi.” It proves to be as entertaining as any other “Star Wars” movie currently out there in circulation, and yes, I include the prequels. This film also makes me look forward to Rian Johnson’s continued contributions to the franchise which look to be many, and I eagerly await the next episode as I am not sure what to expect from it. I just hope I don’t go into a future “Star Wars” movie saying to myself, “I got a bad feeling about this.”

* * * ½ out of * * * *

 

‘War for the Planet of the Apes’ Caps Off a Truly Great Trilogy

War for the Planet of the Apes poster

The summer 2017 movie season hasn’t necessarily been a bad one, but so far it has been overrun by franchise fatigue. Did we really need another “Transformers” sequel? Was the wait for the latest “Pirates of the Caribbean” really worth it? Can’t Pixar do more than just give us another sequel to “Cars?” Some franchises have seriously overstayed their welcome to where it feels like we need to take a LONG break from sequels of any kind, except of course for the next ones coming from the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

But now we have “War for the Planet of the Apes,” the third in the rebooted “Apes” franchise which is not only the best one to date, but also one of the best movies of 2017. Unlike other sequels which essentially repeat the same story to nauseating effect, “War” is not out to give us a replica of everything which happened before. From the start, we see how far the apes have evolved, and we also see the humans going through a state of de-evolution as well. In this war, it won’t matter who wins because nothing will ever be the same for anybody.

Taking place two years after the events of “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes,” “War” finds the conflict between the apes and the humans getting bloodier and bloodier. Both sides have taken heavy casualties, and the humans have resorted to recruiting apes to betray their own in a desperate effort to gain the upper hand in an escalating conflict. Caesar (Andy Serkis) has now reached a mythic status on the planet as a strong leader, and he now speaks as well as any human. When the movie starts, he has just survived another battle which leaves many dead in its wake, but instead of killing the remaining human soldiers, he sends them back to their base with a message to their leader, leave us alone. At this point, Caesar merely wants to protect his fellow apes and everything which is rightfully theirs.

But after being reunited with his loving family, Caesar suffers an unimaginable tragedy perpetrated by a military unit led by the ruthless Colonel McCullough (Woody Harrelson), and he heads out on a mission of revenge which, to quote a Klingon proverb, will be best served cold. Joined by several of his closest friends which include the wise and benevolent Maurice (Karin Konoval), Caesar comes not just to understand the world around him, but also about himself and of how he may be the maker of his own fate.

Whereas “Rise” dealt with evolution and how humans may not be a superior race of beings, and “Dawn” observed how humans and apes can be their own worst enemies, “War” focuses on the themes of vengeance and hate and what they do to the soul. Caesar’s quest for revenge is completely understandable, but his friends worry about what his hate for the Colonel is doing to his inner self. Caesar finds his strength from within and is as wise as he is strong, but we can see his soul is being corrupted on this mission as he is determined to exterminate his enemy with extreme prejudice.

The cost of revenge is a common theme in many stories, but “War” treats it with a great deal of intelligence. Caesar is constantly haunted by visions of Koba (Toby Kebbell) whose treacherous actions led Caesar to drop him to his death in “Dawn.” Maurice, the Obi-Wan Kenobi of these “Apes” movies, reminds Caesar of how Koba never got past his hate for humans to see the need for peace. But while Caesar convinces himself his motives are far purer than Koba’s, he comes to realize he is no different from Koba as his need to exact revenge takes precedence over everything else which holds great meaning in his life. The question is, can Caesar pull out of this moral nosedive before it’s late, or will he sink into an abyss of hatred which will rob him of all he stands for?

Not enough can be said about Andy Serkis’ performance as Caesar, and his work should have netted him at least one Oscar by now. We have seen Caesar go from being a frightened young ape into a hardened warrior, and Serkis has made every emotional beat count for something deep and true. While the visual effects help to illustrate how he has paid a price for the war being fought, it is Serkis who gives these effects soul and meaning as he plumbs the depths of Caesar to give us a character who is wonderfully complex and haunted by past deeds which cannot be simply washed away.

Woody Harrelson once again reminds us how he can play just about any role given to him these days with his portrayal of Colonel McCullough. His performance draws a bit from Marlon Brando’s in “Apocalypse Now” as, like Colonel Kurtz, McCullough has become a rogue soldier as his need to wipe out the apes and save the humans comes from a place of pain and delusion instead of from a higher military authority. Part of me expected to McCullough to be the usual military antagonist movies of this kind typically employ, but Harrelson gives this character much more dimension than you might be anticipating, and he matches Serkis scene for scene as their characters come to discover how alike they really are.

In addition, Serkis and Harrelson get strong support from Karin Konoval who makes Maurice far wiser than CGI can ever convey, Steve Zahn whose character of “Bad Ape” is kind of the equivalent to “Harry Potter’s” Dobby, and Amiah Miller is a scene-stealer as the mute war orphan who comes to be known as Nova.

Matt Reeves, who directed “Dawn,” returns to helm “War” and tops what he gave us before. The third movie in a franchise usually falls back on a well-trod formula, but he instead advances the plight of the apes to another level which furthers their evolution, and of the humans’ furious attempts to eradicate them which reveals their failings and a tremendous lack of understanding about where we all came from. And while the visual effects are tremendous in how they make the apes look ever so real, they are not the point. Reeves’ focus is more on character and performance more than ever before, and it is those things which make “War” especially epic. A lot of summer blockbusters are geared towards wowing us with special effects to where the human element is lost, but Reeves and company have the special effects serving the movie and its characters in a wonderfully effective way. On top of all this, “War” is well-served by one of Michael Giacchino’s best film scores to date.

The “Apes” reboot trilogy now joins the company of great cinematic trilogies such as Episodes IV, V and VI of “Star Wars,” the Jason Bourne trilogy, and “The Lord of the Rings” among others. It’s so pleasing to see filmmakers give us the kind of summer blockbuster many don’t always expect to see, one filled with great performances and intelligence as well as characters who are very interesting and whom you want to root for. Many blockbusters are the equivalent of a fast food meal which you may have enjoyed eating but which does not leave much of an aftertaste, but this is epic filmmaking which you can’t help but be emotionally drawn into. In a summer movie season which has been lacking to say the least, “War for the Planet of the Apes” is a real winner.

I also have to say “War” kept reminded of a Talking Heads song called “(Nothing But) Flowers.” As apes and humans traverse a landscape dominated by trees, rocks and lakes to where you can’t remember the last time you saw a building, the following lyric kept playing in my head:

“If this is paradise, I wish I had a lawnmower.”

* * * * out of * * * *

‘Dawn of the Planet of the Apes’ is an Infinitely Worthy Sequel

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes movie poster

“So, what is it that separates you and me from the goldfish, the butterfly, the flat billed platypus? Our minds? Our souls? That fact that we can get HBO? Well maybe it’s that humans are the only species to put other animals in cages, put its own kind in cages.”

-Augustus Hill

“Oz”

This quote from one of my favorite, and most unsettling, television shows of the 1990’s kept reverberating through my mind as I watched “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes,” the sequel to the surprisingly well-received “Rise of the Planet of the Apes.” Animals do operate by their own set of rules and are not governed by the same ones we follow on a regular basis. But what if animals evolved to where they could cage us? Would they really be any different from us? Every creature on this planet yearns for independence from others, but what cost are we all willing to pay for it? This is one of the many questions this movie asks its viewers, and it’s particularly noteworthy to see in a summer movie with a very large budget.

“Dawn” takes place ten years after the events of “Rise,” and the world has changed in a highly dramatic fashion. Much of human civilization has been wiped out by the ALZ-113 virus which Gen-Sys created in the hopes of curing Alzheimer’s disease, and the apes are now the dominant species on Earth. Caesar (Andy Serkis) is still the leader of the apes, and we see them in their natural habitat working to survive in a hostile world and educating their young. It’s been a very long time since any of them have seen a human, but this changes when they run into Carver (Kirk Acevedo), an ape hating human who makes the mistake of shooting one of them.

From there, we come to see there are still many human beings who have not succumbed to the virus, and among them is Malcolm (Jason Clarke) who is determined to reach out to the apes in a peaceful manner. The humans are running low on power and need to gain access to a hydroelectric dam which is in the apes’ territory. Of course, this requires a lot of trust between the different species for this to happen, and neither one is prepared to make it easy for the other.

With Serkis returning as Caesar, all eyes are on him as he was brilliant in “Rise,” and he knocks it out of the park once again in “Dawn.” Time has hardened Caesar and his trust in humans has almost completely disappeared, and his days are spent protecting his fellow apes and keeping them in line. Yes, all the apes you see here are CGI-created, but the great thing about actors like Serkis is, after a while, they make you forget about how you’re looking at a visual effect. Serkis invests Caesar with such a raw emotional power to where you can’t help but feel for him when things go horribly wrong. Even when Caesar speaks, and it was a shock to hear him say “no” in the previous film, Serkis makes the character’s struggles all the more palpable to where you root for him to ease the divisions between humans and apes.

But what makes “Dawn” especially effective is, like the best science fiction stories, it reflects the struggles of the world today. The conflicts between the humans and apes could easily be compared to those between Israel and Palestine, blacks and whites, the rich and the poor and perhaps even between Star Wars and Star Trek fans (let’s not leave anyone out here). Director Matt Reeves (“Cloverfield” and “Let Me In”) mines this material for all the emotional depth it has, and none of the characters, human or otherwise, can be boiled down to a one-dimensional cliché. If they can just get past their perceived differences, the world can become a peaceful place for them to live in.

Also, “Dawn” gets at the unavoidable truth of how the greatest threat to a group doesn’t come from its enemy, but instead from within. Caesar’s second in command, Koba (Toby Kebbell), can’t get himself to make peace with all the cruel animal testing he was forced to endure before the virus laid waste to the planet. And on the human side, you have Dreyfus (Gary Oldman), the leader of the remaining human survivors who is determined to protect them no matter what. There will always be change and there will always be resistance to change, and Koba and Dreyfus represent the greatest threat to any change which can occur. If they could see that their differences are only skin deep, then maybe there would be a chance but, as Peter Gabriel said, fear is the mother of violence.

Now a lot of people have said the human element in “Dawn” is lacking, but I’m not sure about that. Granted, the CGI creation of the apes is amazing to look at and the actors who inhabit them deserve more recognition than they will probably get when awards season comes around, but “Dawn” has a good human cast as well. Jason Clarke, so good in “Zero Dark Thirty,” proves to be a human worth rooting for as Malcolm, a man who has shared about the same number of loses as Caesar has. Keri Russell, who is currently kicking ass on “The Americans,” reminds us of how lovely she can be playing such a tough woman devoted to her loves in her life as well as in science and facts. Oldman, who can be prone to overacting in movies like this, is fun to watch here as he gives us a character who is not quite a bad guy but not necessarily a good one either. It’s also great to see Kirk Acevedo, so great as Alvarez on the HBO series “Oz,” here as Carver, a former water worker who has trouble getting past his fear and misunderstanding of apes.

The rebooting of the “Planet of the Apes” franchise was not exactly met with open arms, and this was especially the case after we witnessed Tim Burton’s incredibly disappointing remake. But ever since “Rise of the Planet of the Apes,” this franchise has proven to be one to look forward to. Our expectations for it remain in check, and things get even better this time around with “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.” Even if this movie ends on a note of despair over what could have been, there is still an inkling of hope as we look into Caesar’s eyes. For once, we get the feeling all of humanity might actually learn from its mistake, and maybe the apes can too.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

Rise of the Planet of the Apes

rise-of-the-planet-of-the-apes-movie-poster

Rise of the Planet of the Apes” was a prequel no one I knew of, including myself, was excited about seeing. The memories we have, or whatever’s left of them, of Tim Burton’s surprisingly bland and forgettable remake of “Planet of the Apes” made us not want to have those “damn dirty apes” putting their paws on us ever again. But this prequel proves to be a total surprise and an unexpected delight as it is intelligently written and features a number of interesting characters which many summer movies typically lack.

Actually, there is one real reason why “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” is as good as it is: Andy Serkis. You may not know the face, but you most certainly know the name. Serkis brought Gollum in “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy to life, and he inhabited the humongous ape who was in love with Naomi Watts in “King Kong.” Serkis has also done a large number of live action roles, but these are the ones he is best known for. As Caesar, Serkis does an amazing job of creating a multi-dimensional creature who is endlessly fascinating to watch as his intelligence grows exponentially.

What happens is scientist Will Rodman (James Franco) is developing a genetically engineered retrovirus which may cure Alzheimer’s Disease (didn’t I just tell you that?) just like Saffron Burrows’ character in ” Deep Blue Sea” tried to accomplish. Will, on the other hand, is doing this because his dad Charles (the great John Lithgow) is in the grips of this dreaded disease, so his goal of getting to a cure is both personal and far more dangerous as a result.

Rodman and his team succeed with one chimpanzee, Bright Eyes, who develops a strong level of human intelligence after being given the retrovirus. However, Bright Eyes ends up getting killed after going on a rampage in the laboratory which is immediately blamed on Will’s experiment. It turns out, however, that Bright Eyes had given birth to a chimp, and both Will and fellow scientist Robert Franklin (Tyler Labine) realize the attack came about not because of the retrovirus, but because she was just trying to protect her baby. Since all the other chimps were euthanized after the attack, Robert asks Will to take care of the chimp until a more permanent home can be found. If the baby is discovered, she will be euthanized like the rest of the chimps were.

Now this is where the movie gets really interesting as we watch the baby chimp, which Will names Caesar, grow up and evolve at a rapid pace. The retrovirus ended up being passed on to him from his mother, so he is already imbued with human intelligence. Now I don’t know if any experiment can make chimps or apes that smart as of yet, but considering we came from them (don’t believe otherwise), the concept behind the plot feels very plausible since we know chimps can learn things like sign language (which Will teaches Caesar), and that DNA in chimps and humans is exactly identical.

“Rise of the Planet of The Apes” came out around the same time the documentary “Project Nim” was released, and that one focused on a chimp who was raised alongside a human family where he learned American Sign Language. As a result, Will bringing Caesar into his home for him and his ailing father to watch over never feels far-fetched in the slightest.

Serkis is brilliant in making Caesar appear like a frightened child as he discovers the dangers of the outside world. This is not your typical monster movie where the humans fight animals because they are considered “evil.” Caesar doesn’t start out attacking humans as much as he defends the ones he feels are being harmed. We feel for him as he gets exposed to a cold and hostile environment which treats him as inferior and brutalizes him out of sheer neglect and contempt. Watching Serkis transform Caesar from helpless victim to leader is mesmerizing, and he makes it to where we don’t see him as an animal but as more human than the humans surrounding him.

We’ve seen some movies where humans attack aliens or other species, be it “Cowboys & Aliens” or “Attack The Block,” so it’s kind of refreshing to see “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” bypass this to where the battle is more complex than it appears to be on the surface. These apes weren’t born evil, but they have evolved (take that Creationists!) to where they are no longer dependent on humans for their survival. You almost find yourself rooting for the apes as you can’t blame them for wanting to get back at their captors. Then again, not all the humans in this movie are cruel to animals.

James Franco is as excellent as scientist Will Rodman who is in the Frankenstein mold of trying to extend life even if it goes beyond scientific boundaries. Franco never makes Will out to be an obsessive genius with delusions of grandeur, but instead a regular guy doing what he feels is best. As he tries the retrovirus on other chimps and his father, even he comes to see there are and should be limits to what science can do. Human life can only last for so long, darn it.

The movie, however, stumbles a little when it comes to other characters. Freida Pinto (“Slumdog Millionaire”) plays Will’s girlfriend Caroline Aranha, but she’s not given much to do other than be his conscience. Brian Cox plays John Landon, manager of a primate facility who incarcerates Caesar when a court order takes him away from Will. Cox is great as always, but we don’t see enough of him. Then there’s Tom Felton who brings his Draco Malfoy act from the “Harry Potter” franchise to the States with an American accent as Landon’s bully of a son, Dodge. Felton’s not bad, but the character he plays is nothing more than a manipulative device to turn our sympathies towards Caesar which comes to feel unnecessary very quickly.

Directing “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” is Rupert Wyatt who previously directed the British prison thriller “The Escapist.” He shows a very assured and confident style here and is clearly interested in more than just simple escapist fun with this film. He also gives more attention to the characters to where they are the ones which drive the film. The special effects are great, but they’re not the point. The complexities of the story make for a more emotionally involving cinematic experience than any “Transformers” movie could ever hope to be.

The story is a familiar one of man vs. science and of the moral implications which are heedlessly ignored in the pursuit of a greater good. We should despise Will for violating his own ethics which start off an evolution that soon leads to a revolution. But in the end, the movie implies that the destruction of the human race will not be from the apes but instead from our own willful ignorance. We should know better, and yet history keeps repeating itself.

“Rise of the Planet of the Apes” proved to be one of summer 2011’s best movies, and it makes me look forward to the sequel “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.” The downside is Serkis still has yet to get an Oscar nomination for his work in movies like these. Regardless of how it may seem, the special effects did not do all the acting for him. It could have just seemed like a simple setup for a franchise, but it feels very much like a full movie which doesn’t exist solely for that purpose. It will appeal to a wide audience, and not just for those who are against animal testing.

* * * ½ out of * * * *