FilmSpace: Mug; Mortal Engines; Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle

Film critic Calum Cooper looks back at the week’s additional releases, including the Berlin Film Festival Jury Grand Prix winner Mug, a fantasy adaptation produced and co-written by Peter Jackson, and Andy Serkis’ take on The Jungle Book.

Mug – ★★★★☆

Mug is one of those films that’s toe curling to watch, but there’s no denying the strength of its craft or subtext. A Polish film from Malgorzata Szumowska, I, like a lot of people, initially assumed the title was referencing a mug that you drink from. It is in fact referencing a face. This is because of the fate befalls the main character, Jacek (Mateusz Kosciukiewicz).

Set in the town of Swiebodzin, the film’s story is based around the tallest statue of Jesus in the world, completed in 2010. Jacek is a construction worker for the statue, and he leads a mundane private life too. He adores his girlfriend, and his family, while holding racist views and heavily integrated into the Christian faith much like the rest of the town, seem to at least care for him. This changes when Jacek suffers a horrific accident while working on the statue. The injury is so bad that he requires an immediate face transplant. It saves his life, but leaves him horribly deformed and unrecognisable. Once he arrives home however, it becomes clear that the community is not taking kindly to his new appearance.

The film’s key theme is the classic ‘judge someone for their actions, not their looks’. But the way Szumowska presents it is very engaging. Her direction allows us to truly get to know Jacek as a person. She finds the humanity in him brilliantly, with Kosciukiewicz also successfully encompassing the strife and optimism of this character in the face of a community that has given up on him; a community who believes that the funding and media coverage of a statue is more important than a man’s life.

One could also make the argument that the film offers staunch criticism of cultism. The film portrays the devout Christian community in a rather negative light – one could justifiably claim too negative. However, I thought it was criticising the people practicing the religion rather than the religion itself. Racist views, selfishness, and sycophantic behaviour is in abundance as the community use their religious beliefs as a scapegoat so that they can bask in their own self-righteousness. As such, it makes their demonization of Jacek as something to fear or gawk at all the more angering, and their smug hypocrisy darkly comical.

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Blending these elements, Szumowska skilfully walks the line between brutal reality and fantasy. The fantasy comes from Jacek having to live with his new appearance and understanding how it is not him who is grotesque, but the people around him. Yet the reality comes from the cruelty on display by his community. The changes Jacek has undergone – changes which he did not ask for – have revealed the town’s true colours. It is Szumowska’s empathetic approach to Jacek’s situation that makes her rambunctious criticisms all the more thought provoking, with the film’s final shot being equal parts funny and profound.

The film isn’t flawless however. Some of the actions of the townsfolk can be seen as exaggeratedly mean-spirited. Szumowska also adopts this technique of blurring out the sides of her shots, leaving only one aspect, like a character in clear focus. It’s an intriguing technique, but it came off as distracting to me.

Nevertheless, Mug is a gripping film, if not always a pleasant one. Some may have trouble with the sheer ruthlessness of its themes, but it remains a very interesting piece of cinema.

Mortal Engines – ★★☆☆☆

Mortal Engines is an appropriate title: It’s mechanically made and will likely expire before its proposed franchise can properly get rolling (pun intended). Based on Philip Reeve’s novel of the same name, the film is set in the far future in which an apocalypse has gripped the earth. In order to survive, cities have adapted to various new forms. London, for example, has now been rebuilt on giant wheels, and roams around mainland Europe ingesting other, smaller cities. There’s an ironic Brexit joke in there somewhere, but I’m not smart enough to think of one.

That’s merely the setup however. The story concerns Hester Shaw (Hera Hilmer), a scarred vigilante who has made her way onto the mobile London to kill the power hungry Thaddeus Valentine (Hugo Weaving), as he supposedly murdered her mother. She fails and ends up ejected from the city, along with a young Londoner, Tom (Robert Sheehan). Together the two must brave the harsh lands and find their way back to London, where a larger conspiracy looms.

When I heard the concept I was strangely reminded of a Frankie Boyle joke. In an episode of Mock the Week, Boyle pitched the idea of sentient cities on hydraulic legs battling for resources. This premise is essentially that joke, only the city is on wheels. As such, it’s hard to take this setup seriously, even though the film plays it as epic.

It’s incredible that a film which visualises cities on wheels doesn’t understand the show don’t tell rule either, for when the dialogue isn’t a collection of clunky one liners, it dumps masses of exposition on us rather than let the character arcs and story flow naturally.

But it’s the solemn attitude in spite of the film’s numerous clichés that ultimately derails it. The script is littered with messy plot points that only loosely fit, and characters that are flat and two-dimensional. The plot is beat-for-beat predictable, and the motivations feel recycled and underdeveloped. It’s incredible that a film which visualises cities on wheels doesn’t understand the show don’t tell rule either, for when the dialogue isn’t a collection of clunky one liners, it dumps masses of exposition on us rather than let the character arcs and story flow naturally.

The visuals are admittedly impressive, with the huge cities giving off a steampunk Howl’s Moving Castle vibe. But looking good can only get a movie so far. While the film does have themes on learning from history’s mistakes, they’re undermined by the bland protagonists and the first half’s reliance on modern products – such as Minions, iPhones and Twinkies. It shatters the illusion that we’re in an apocalyptic future, and will do nothing but date the film in the years to come.

There are moments of entertainment value scattered about. The acting is generally strong, considering the uninspired writing. Weaving in particular chews the scenery deliciously as the villain, Thaddeus. There’s also a clever background joke involving a Londoner and his pint. But its concept is too daft to take seriously, and the action and narrative isn’t exciting enough to be a decent shut-your-brain-off experience.

As such, Mortal Engines is an experience that looks big but never feels big.

Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle – ★★☆☆☆

I wanted to like Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle a lot more than I did. It has plenty of ambition behind it, and Andy Serkis’ passion is commendable. But it simply doesn’t know what kind of film it wants to be, and that drains away much of the promised potential.

Whether you watched the Disney classic or read Kipling’s original source material, we all know the story around The Jungle Book. The film follows the initial foundations of the story – such as Mowgli (Rohan Chand) being raised by a wolf pack and the panther Bagheera (Christian Bale) – but it eventually starts to forge its own path. Sure, the bear Baloo (Andy Serkis) serves a role, and the tiger Shere Khan (Benedict Cumberbatch) remains a threat. But the direction it goes on sees Mowgli directly caught between man and the jungle, having to decide for himself where he really belongs.

The film was originally scheduled for release in 2016. But as we know, Jon Favreau’s Jungle Book was released at the same time. The timing was unfortunate and the film was constantly pushed back until Netflix finally bought the rights for distribution. It’s a grim situation that no filmmaker should have to go through.

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But my problem with this film is that it’s tonally all over the place. According to interviews, Serkis aimed to make a darker interpretation of the story. He achieves this effect at times, via scenes of intense rejection and tormenting, as well as a particularly bloody scene where Shere Khan cuts into Mowgli’s arm. But it seems to be juggling it with the same light hearted spirit of the Disney classic. There’s a brilliantly tense scene where Mowgli is underwater hiding from Shere Khan. But a few scenes later we’re watching Khan’s hyena sidekick run around screaming obnoxiously after his tail catches fire.

It’s like the film’s afraid that if it commits to its darker tone it’ll scare the children away. By adding in cheap comic visuals and redundant dialogue in with the brutal depictions of the jungle, the film attempts to speak to both children and adults. Yet it takes away from the initial setup and thus renders the experience unsuitable to either group.

There’s also the uncanny factor of the film’s visuals. While the rendering and CGI work is technically impressive, the animals were crafted to resemble the actors playing them, right down to their eyes. It’s a technique Serkis has been involved with before. But as his past roles were supposed to resemble humanoid creatures or apes, the effect was convincing enough. Here, it evokes this odd feeling that we’re watching the actors rather than the illusion of animals. While the models do resemble animals well enough, we can tell they’re not really there. Kaa in particular suits this eerie image, and the off-putting nature of it makes it surprisingly difficult to concentrate on the central story.

In terms of the film’s merits it has strong acting all around, and its exploration on where true family lies is a welcome theme. But the slightly off visuals and scattershot tone makes the experience very hard to get on board with. Given his ambition and dedication to the project, I have no doubt Andy Serkis will go on to direct something great in the future. But Mowgli is an animal that never quite catches its prey.

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