Tag Archives: Andy Serkis

Defending George as ‘The Force Awakens’

Instead of spending Black Friday fighting over flat-screen TVs at Walmart, I replayed “The Force Awakens” teaser trailer over and over on my phone, along with the rest of the world’s Star Wars nerds.

I analyzed and reanalyzed every detail: Is that Benedict Cumberbatch or Andy Serkis intoning ominously in voiceover? Who is that black-clad figure wielding the coolest lightsaber ever? Is that a droid or a soccer ball?

Then I took to Twitter to find out if I had missed anything. I texted friends and relatives to compare notes. I tried not to get too excited. “Remember the prequels,” I told myself, but it was no use.

In one of those spine-tingling moments that will go down in geek history, I and seemingly every other person on the planet was besotted.

In the days since the big reveal, relief and delight over the fact that “Star Wars: Episode VII” may not be the fiasco we feared has given way to gleeful mockery directed at “Star Wars” creator George Lucas, the man behind the best-loved sci-fi franchise of all time. (You may now start sending me hate mail, Trekkies.)

Dozens of comments on Facebook and Twitter express satisfaction that George can’t touch this new trilogy, J.J. Abrams be praised.

This hilarious version of “The Force Awakens” trailer, parodying the director’s much-loathed “improvements” to his original trio of films, has been circulating.

Also making the rounds, to great amusement, is this befuddling preview for an animated movie hailing “from the mind of George Lucas.” Turns out it’s based on a story he wrote and, yes, it looks pretty terrible.

I understand where all the George bashing comes from and I enjoy poking fun at his missteps as much as anyone. As far as my family is concerned, the filmmaker’s infamous prequels don’t exist and mention of a certain sequel with the words “Crystal” and “Skull” in the title causes physical pain.

Yet I can’t help but feel that Lucas doesn’t deserve such bitter backlash from the very fans who profess to adore his original creation.

This isn’t the first time I’ve defended Lucas. In 2008, I wrote a column arguing the director’s case. Ironically, it was just before the release of “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.”

Even so, I stand by what I wrote then:

(Lucas) has gotten a bad rap over the past decade for his megalomaniacal tendencies, a certain computer-generated abomination called Jar Jar Binks, his mysterious ability to transform capable actors, like Natalie Portman and Samuel L. Jackson, into unfeeling blocks of wood and his inability to stop tampering with the “Star Wars” master prints.

These trespasses are not easily forgiven, but I can’t help but feeling that we have been a little too harsh on the master of the “Star Wars” universe, styling him in our imaginations as a scheming villain holed up at Skywalker Ranch, cackling as he dreams of new and better ways to annoy his adoring fan base.

… Perhaps it would be helpful, not to mention therapeutic, if we remembered all the things we used to like about George, his legendary contributions to the film industry and what his legacy means to us.

Lucas may be a control freak who doesn’t give a fig about what his colleagues or devotees desire, but it’s doubtful he would have accomplished all that he has if he wasn’t so uncompromising.

This is the man who almost single-handedly revolutionized independent filmmaking, championing artistic control with a savvy business deal that allowed him to preserve the “Star Wars” franchise exactly as he envisioned it and make a fortune off the licensing rights.

His technical contributions to the entertainment industry are innumerable. Since the debut of “Star Wars” in 1977, he and his creative team have aggressively advanced the fields of visual effects, sound, editing, digital filmmaking and video games. Industrial Light & Magic, THX, Skywalker Sound, Pixar –they all sprang from the mind of Lucas.

And it’s not as if his extreme wealth and power have driven him to the Dark Side, either. Lucas is a philanthropist, establishing an educational foundation and donating millions to his alma mater, the University of Southern California.

Perhaps the most important thing to remember, however, is that Lucas is the creator of “Star Wars,” “The Empire Strikes Back,” “Return of the Jedi” and the Indiana Jones trilogy, six films that have inspired and continue to inspire generations of lifelong movie lovers.

“Star Wars” was the movie that first introduced this critic to the wondrous possibilities of the cinema. “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade” was the film that showed her how much fun you could have in a movie theater.

… I must confess that I have nothing but gratitude for him.

Perhaps it’s time we showed more respect for the mind that spawned the little space opera that has become not just a series of movies, but a pop cultural touchstone, a lifestyle, a shared language, practically a religion.

This guy invented the Millennium Falcon, the lightsaber, R2-D2, Darth Vader, Yoda and Boba Fett. He breathed life into a galaxy far, far away with rudimentary but revolutionary special effects that still hold up. He inspired John Williams’ epic, instantly recognized musical score. His depiction of the battle between good and evil — a battle that rages inside all of us — is timeless.

So I’ll say it again.

Thanks, George.

 

 

 

Apes With Machine Guns? Yes, Please

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
Two and a half stars (out of four)
PG-13 (intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action, brief strong language)
130 minutes

Those damn, dirty apes are back and as sympathetic as ever, thanks to the wizardry of motion capture technology and another dazzling performance by Hollywood’s motion capture go-to guy, Andy Serkis.

“Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” is the sequel to 2011’s “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” (there’s no shame in it if you mix up the titles), a reboot of the cheesy but beloved 1968 classic starring Charlton Heston. I don’t think anyone expected much out of “Rise” — visions of corny rubber ape masks were still dancing in moviegoers’ heads — yet the film proved to be a surprisingly compelling drama, hinging on the tragic but satisfying character arc of the noble simian known as Caesar.

Serkis, famous for his portrayal of Gollum in the “Lord of the Rings” and “Hobbit” trilogies, delivered a remarkable, emotional performance as the ape whose metamorphosis from cute baby chimp to savior of his species provides the foundation for “Dawn.”

On the surface, “Rise” was a cautionary tale of reckless genetic research and animal cruelty, but at its heart it was an exploration of the volatile bond between fathers and sons. Aside from its impressive visual effects and a finale in which dozens of angry apes swarmed the Golden Gate Bridge, it wasn’t much of an action movie. “Dawn” is just the opposite, a bang-em-up summer blockbuster that offers geek-pleasing images of monkeys on horseback, their hairy fists brandishing machine guns.

“Dawn” continues the father-son theme with a story built around two pairs of dads and their offspring. There’s the genetically-enhanced Caesar, who left behind adoptive papa James Franco at the end of “Rise,” and now has two sons of his own, including a rebellious teenager who’s constantly questioning his authority.

The setting is post-apocalyptic San Francisco and Caesar is patriarch of a flourishing ape society in the Muir Woods. This treetop civilization may resemble the Ewok village but it’s surprisingly advanced. Its hairy residents have discovered the secrets of fire and developed the ability to read, write and speak.

If the idea of talking monkeys is just too much for you, have no fear. Director Matt Reeves wisely downplays this potentially outrageous element with ape talk that is an easy-to-swallow mixture of sign language and guttural speech.

Caesar’s story parallels that of Malcolm (Jason Clarke), one of the few human survivors of the “simian flu,” the lethal virus unleashed by the very experimentation that triggered Caesar’s evolution. Malcolm has his own teenage boy (Kodi Smit-McPhee) to look after and is co-founder of a makeshift civilization in what remains of downtown San Francisco.

To thrive, the fledgling outpost needs power, a requirement that sends Malcolm and a small band of humans on a dangerous errand, crossing into ape territory, where they are met with distrust by Caesar’s band. The tentative reunion of man and monkey results in several tense stand-offs, including a clever scene in which a crafty ape uses the stereotypes of his species to quite literally disarm a couple of redneck gun nuts. There’s also a lovable moment involving Smit-McPhee, an orangutan and the graphic novel “Black Hole.”

Caesar and Malcolm may be in favor of diplomacy but the situation escalates thanks to the meddling of their most trusted advisers — the scarred, embittered ape Koba (played by versatile Brit Toby Kebbell) and paranoid military chief Dreyfus (an over-the-top Gary Oldman) — who see violence as the only way forward.

Reeves demonstrated his affinity for idiosyncratic sci-fi with giant monster movie “Cloverfield” and creepy vampire thriller “Let Me In.” He quickly establishes a tone of hushed unease, contrasting striking images of verdant forest and a shattered San Francisco. The director proves up to the considerable visual effects demands of “Dawn,” especially the battle-heavy third act that boasts those soon to be famous shots of apes who are packing.

Inserting hyper-intelligent, talking animals into relatively realistic war scenarios is likely to result in a mixed bag of reactions. It’s a strange sight, which some will find thrilling and others deeply disturbing or at the very least unsettling. For me, the final act of “Dawn” simply drags on far too long as it abandons humanity for apes-gone-bananas action.

Returning screenwriters Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver and co-scribe Mark Bomback (“The Wolverine,” “Total Recall”) are too enamored with their ape creations to get a good handle on their human characters, so even actors as fine as Clarke and Oldman come up blank.

That’s not at all the case for the film’s computer-generated simian stars. Serkis’ Caesar is still an astonishingly lifelike and — dare we say? — intensely human creation. If anyone deserves to rule the planet based on personality alone, it’s the apes.

A Slight Disturbance in the Force: Thoughts on the Big ‘Star Wars’ Casting News

When I first heard the news that Disney had acquired Lucasfilm for $4 billion and planned to make another “Star Wars” film, I sank into a depression for two straight days. Silly, I know, but I just couldn’t wrap my mind around yet another installment spun out of the glorious sci-fi trilogy that informed much of my late childhood and, yes, I’ll admit to it, my adult life as well. “Star Wars” is sacred and every bit of — even George Lucas approved — meddling raises anew the possibility of irreversible desecration.

I like to think that since the announcement early last year, I have moved from denial and anger to acceptance, which is why I can calmly (I hope) offer some off-the-cuff thoughts about today’s big “Star Wars: Episode VII” casting news.

As anyone who lives and breathes and has access to the Internet is no doubt aware, official website starwars.com posted a statement revealing the cast of “Episode VII,” following a year of intense fan speculation. That announcement confirms once and for all that this new installment, part one of a planned trilogy and the first of many, many “Star Wars” spin-offs planned by Disney, will indeed feature returning stars Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher and Mark Hamill.

Many fans feel reassured by the presence of the original “Star Wars” trio, who have obviously given director J.J. Abrams their blessing. The prospect of wise, old versions of Jedi upstart turned master Luke Skywalker, rogue smuggler turned hero Han Solo and tough Jedi princess Leia initiating a young, new cast into the ways of the Force has some members of the Lucas faithful salivating.

I still can’t quite get on board this idea. As someone who thrilled at age 14 to the sight of the rosy-cheeked, shaggy-haired Hamill gazing at Tatooine’s setting twin suns, Ford brandishing a blaster in those pants and that vest and Fisher, with her stubborn, tomboy pout, I have no desire to be confronted with an aging Han, Luke and Leia. Though my husband assures me that Hamill is getting himself into tip-top shape for the resumption of his role, I prefer to remember him and the others as they were … you know, when the Force was strong with these ones. And Ford’s appearance in the next “Expendables” movie, Fisher’s reputation for kooky volatility and Hamill’s vigorous but unseen second-chapter career as a voiceover actor don’t exactly increase my confidence.

The real news here, of course, consists of the new additions to the “Star Wars” universe, featuring obscure names, such as John Boyega and Daisy Ridley, mingled with only slightly more familiar monikers, including Oscar Isaac, Adam Driver and Domhnall Gleeson.

Daisy Ridley

Nobody seems to know who Ridley (pictured above) is. Vanity Fair informs us she is a young British television actress who appeared in “Casualty,” “Youngers,” “Silent Witness” and “Mr. Selfridge.” As one of the lone female members of the cast, she’ll shoulder a heavy burden. Here’s hoping she’s up to to the task.

John Boyega

Boyega (above) is certainly an intriguing choice. I saw him in 2011’s hilariously enjoyable inner-city-teens vs. aliens comedy “Attack the Block.” It’s a small, independently produced British film but he made a big impression in it, playing a South London street thug who becomes an unlikely hero after an extraterrestrial invasion.

Adam Driver Domhnall Gleeson

Although Driver (above left) is probably the most recognizable name among the “Episode VII” cast, I’m perplexed by his presence here. I know his participation has long been rumored and this guy is a big deal in Hollywood right now, thanks to his breakout role on HBO’s “Girls.” I just can’t envision how he might fit into the world of “Star Wars.” He seems a little too contemporary and pip-squeaky to me. I hear rumors he might play a baddie, which could make sense, given how easily he evokes smugness. For now, though, I just don’t see it.

Gleeson (above right) has some major nerd cred already, having appeared in the Harry Potter movies as Bill Weasley, one of Ron’s many brothers. Last year, in the Richard Curtis dramedy “About Time,” he revealed a geeky sort of underdog charm, which might suit him to a Luke Skywalker-ish role. We’ll have to wait and see.

Oscar Isaac

I start to feel a lot better when I consider the presence of Isaac (above) on this list. The Juilliard educated actor made an inauspicious debut in 2006’s “Nativity Story” but has proved to be a major talent in such films as “Che,” “Robin Hood” and “The Bourne Legacy.” Last year, he was snubbed by the Academy for his riveting performance as a brilliant but tortured folk singer in the Coen Brothers’ “Inside Llewyn Davis.” Had he been nominated, he would have most definitely been my choice for best actor of 2013. He has a gift for delicately but fiercely conveying inner turmoil.

Von Sydow Gollum

Rounding out the more familiar names in the “Episode VII” cast are Max von Sydow and Andy Serkis.

Von Sydow is, of course, a veteran actor, Oscar-nominated star of such films as “Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close” and “Shutter Island.” He has a rich, smoky voice and the ability to portray sage warmth or profound menace. He could play a wizened, old Jedi or a sour Sith Lord with equal gusto.

Serkis is famous for portraying Gollum, the most convincing computer-generated motion capture creature ever to grace the screen, in the “Lord of the Rings” and “Hobbit” trilogies. His presence suggests we are going to be treated to yet another stunning piece of motion capture performance art and that a CG critter of awesome magnitude is about to be born — hopefully more Yoda than Jar Jar Binks.

 When I start to get nervous about all this, I remind myself that Abrams did an excellent job recasting “Star Trek” when he successfully rebooted his first famous sci-fi series. One must also remember that when Lucas debuted his original trilogy, no one knew who Ford, Hamill and Fisher were either and look how that turned out.

On the other hand, there is the lingering specter of a certain trilogy of prequels that shall not be named. Fans can argue all they like that it wasn’t really THAT bad, but let’s not kid ourselves. That cold, soulless, CGI-saturated, mitichlorian-ravaged slice of stinky cheese was a crushing disappointment and it scars me to this day.

It cannot happen again, J.J. My lightsaber-wielding heart can’t take it.

Do you hear me?