Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)

Early signs were distinctly unpromising for this beyond belated fourth entry in the post-apocalyptic car wars saga. Delayed from its original 2013 release date, dogged by tales of an overrunning budget, and losing its original leading man years ago, FURY ROAD seemed destined only to be the runaway favourite at next year’s Razzie awards. Surely nobody could fill Mel Gibson’s boots as the antipodean anti-hero? Surely the Max franchise had run its noisy late 70s/early 80s course? Surely director George Miller could have little else to say about the world with his most famous creation?

Let this be a lesson to all of us: never trust those early signs again. MAD MAX revs back on to the big screen in extraordinary style. At the very least a shoo-in for most exciting film of the year, FURY ROAD is both an instant action classic and a reminder of how cinema can refresh the parts other artforms just can’t reach.

Neither a sequel nor a reboot, Miller sidesteps the whole question and simply reintroduces the character afresh. Max (Tom Hardy, succeeding Gibson) is a variation on the Man With No Name, haunted by the death of his family, wandering aimlessly through the ruins of the world. As in the two previous sequels, he falls in with a group of innocent people seeking to escape the gang of thugs and psychopaths who rule the roost in the absence of any sort of government or law enforcement. In FURY ROAD he reluctantly teams up with Furiosa (Charlize Theron), a “breeder” belonging to nutcase warlord Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne), who has made a bid for freedom with Joe’s other female slaves/wives/concubines in search of her childhood home – the “Green Place”. Joe doesn’t take too kindly to her leave of absence, to say the least, and what follows is one of the longest and most memorable chase sequences in film history.

The formula might be unchanged and the plot as flat as the scorched landscape, but that doesn’t matter one bit. Once FURY ROAD gets going it barely stops for breath; with the basic set up out of the way, Miller is free to create the kind of inventive explosive mayhem that only a massive Hollywood budget can buy: bad guys pole vault across cars, explosive-tipped spears pierce cars and people, vehicles flip in every direction. The wide open spaces and clear blue skies of the Namibian desert, beautifully captured by cinematographer John Seale, mean there’s nowhere to hide. The view is spectacular.

But Miller doesn’t sacrifice everything on the altar of spectacle. The breathless set pieces follow one after another so quickly that there’s little time for much else, but he has still sketched a few significant roles, the meatiest of which goes to Theron. Shaven headed and sporting a mechanical prosthetic arm, her Furiosa nonetheless brings a compassionate, human dimension to the story, counterbalancing Max’s empty fatalism and Joe’s regressive patriarchy. The latter’s society treats women as livestock and keeps the general populace satiated with the occasional promise of water (perhaps the first time that water has merited as much importance as fuel in Max’s world). The other women, including Zoë Kravitz and Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, are each given enough time to register independently as different victims of Joe’s abusive regime who have chosen to make a stand. The film ultimately suggests that women, and only women, can save civilization – a somewhat unlikely message to come from conservative Hollywood.

Max is almost relegated to a supporting role in his own movie; though Hardy does well, he isn’t given much opportunity to put his stamp on the role (and his Aussie accent comes and goes with a mind of its own). Nicholas Hoult fares better as Nux, one of Joe’s minions who tags along for the ride, but this is still a Mad Max movie through and through; as explosive and radical and fresh as he and his director have ever been.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan

An in-depth look at my (and many others) favourite Star Trek film, which recently screened at Cambridge Arts Picturehouse:

Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan poster

Of all the films in the Star Trek franchise, THE WRATH OF KHAN from 1982 is usually cited as the best. There are plenty of reasons why that is the case, but there is a strange logic at work here. Current wisdom dictates that, in order to be successful, a film franchise based on a pre-existing property like a TV show needs to steer clear of anything requiring more than a cursory knowledge of the source material, so as to attract a bigger audience.

Yet STAR TREK II did precisely the opposite; it delved back in to the series mythology, resurrecting a half-forgotten villain of the week. It focused on the characters as much as the science-fiction story, and still delivered a smart, emotional sequel that resonates with viewers over thirty years later. How could this be? Wasn’t it a risky strategy to court the fans rather than an indifferent wider public?

Full article: Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan | TAKE ONE

Cambridge Film Festival 2013 Round-up

Cambridge Film FestivalIt’s astonishingly late, but at last here’s a round-up of my reviews for TAKE ONE from this year’s Cambridge Film Festival. There was, as ever, a fine selection of films and special guests; when there are several movies you want to see all being shown at exactly the same time, then you know it’s going well. Two of the reviews below are actually of my favourite films in the whole line-up: the re-release of NOTHING BUT A MAN and the Middle Eastern western MY SWEET PEPPER LAND, and I was chuffed to be able to introduce the latter. Neil Brand’s two appearances – brilliantly accompanying the restored print of NOSFERATU and his NOT SO SILENT MOVIES family show – were also a highlight. The bar was always humming with activity and chatter, and the staff and volunteers were incredibly helpful and friendly (not always easy when the inevitable last minute hiccups pop up). Not even the stinking cold I caught at the midway point could keep me away.

A pity then, that the excitement and atmosphere was somewhat dampened by the unsettling prospect of a death sentence being handed to the Arts Picturehouse by the Competition Commission, in its inexplicable bid to wreck one of Cambridge’s cultural pillars. We’ve yet to learn which of its cinemas Cineworld will sell in Cambridge, but the signs aren’t promising: the Picturehouses in both Bury St Edmunds and Aberdeen have already been given their marching orders, and Cineworld don’t appear to be interested in appealing the Commission’s decision. So what becomes of the Festival next year is anybody’s guess.

Press pass

However, that didn’t stop Tony Jones and his seemingly tireless team from putting on a great show. All sort of new discoveries, old faithful friends and other intriguing oddities were given the big screen treatment. If this does prove to be the last festival in its current form, then at least it bowed out with grace and pride intact. Well done to all.

So here are my reviews:

My Sweet Pepper Land
A satisfying blend of Middle Eastern drama and spaghetti western homage, MY SWEET PEPPER LAND is a flavoursome brew to savour. Director Hiner Saleem (himself a Kurd) has created, in some ways, a rather old-fashioned drama which frequently raises the expectation of violence in one form or another, but mostly backs away from the bloody retribution normally associated with the genre. The result is a film where tensions remain bottled and passions are kept in check, with the outcome feeling slightly unsatisfying as a consequence.

My Beautiful Country
A new spin on the old biblical story of The Good Samaritan, MY BEAUTIFUL COUNTRY delicately explores a tentative romance between a young Serbian widow and a wounded Albanian soldier against the backdrop of the 1999 Kosovo War. Whilst there may not be anything dramtically fresh or new in Michaela Kezele’s film, it does wield plenty of emotional heft in its focus on a forbidden romance and the unforeseen consequences of helping someone who has suddenly become the enemy. It also attempts to raise awareness (none too subtly) of the use of depleted uranium ammunition by NATO in the conflict, through a sub-plot centred on children’s wartime experiences.

Machete Kills
Danny Trejo’s indestructible federale returns in this amusing if nonsensical sequel to the original 2010 grindhouse-inspired parody. Changing tack from the down-and-dirty revenge movies that drove the earlier plot, the inspiration this time around is late 70s/early 80s action films; and director Robert Rodriguez takes his cue from Roger Moore’s Bond era, when gadgets and fantastical action came to the fore. This entry is basically Rodriguez reconfiguring his family SPY KIDS movies for adults, adding lashings of violence and saucy humour to the mix.

Nothing But A Man
A low key yet unwaveringly honest assessment of racism in the American South during the mid-Sixties, NOTHING BUT A MAN is an unfairly neglected gem that fully deserves its forthcoming BFI re-release. Directed by Michael Roemer – a man with barely a handful of credits to his name – its poignant tale centres on black railroad worker Duff (Ivan Dixon), an easygoing free spirit who tries to improve himself by settling down with schoolteacher Josie (Abbey Lincoln) and working in a ‘normal’ job. He slowly discovers that little has changed while he’s been away; the local white population still call the shots, and anyone who acts above their station is quickly and comprehensively shut out of the community.

Google and the World Brain
Just how much intellectual property should be placed in the hands of a single entity? And who exactly should profit from it? It’s a moral dilemma that Ben Lewis’ compelling documentary attempts to pick apart through an investigation of Google’s digital books project. Inevitably it fails to explore the issue in as much depth as the subject truly deserves, but given the importance of the debate, Lewis should be applauded for getting it this far into the public eye. After all, the decisions being made now about how far one company can go in publishing any book it chooses may have far-reaching consequences for us all.

What better way to open this year’s Cambridge Film Festival than with an exploration of one of its most famous residents? HAWKING is an intimate look at the life of the renowned physicist. Switching between his current hectic schedule of lectures and media appearances, and pottering through a history of his life to date, the film gives a polished overview of its remarkable subject and his defining achievements.

Review: The Hangover Part III (2013)

The Hangover Part III posterIt’s not unusual for films to mine laughs from emotionally darker territory, but it’s a brave comedy that deliberately tries to avoid making its audience laugh at all. The Hangover Part III delivers about as many gags as The Turin Horse. One can only wonder how a film that felt like a breath of fresh air in 2009 managed to spawn two clunking sequels so utterly bereft of fun, despite Todd Phillips directing all three. It’s testament to the skills of the principal cast that it is at least endurable – depending on your tolerance of Mr Chow (Ken Jeong) – but even they seem to be struggling with a plot that smacks of desperation and a script with so little in the way of anything approaching comedy.

Let the records show that there was only ever one Hangover film.

Review: Star Trek Into Darkness (2013)

Star Trek Into Darkness posterJJ Abram’s follow up to his largely well-received Star Trek reboot has met with very mixed reactions, and it’s not hard to see why.

On the one hand, it propels forward the 2009 film’s iconoclastic spirit of energy and reinvention, continuing to explore familiar elements of the classic Trek universe while simultaneously subverting expectations. There’s a whole lot of action and noise going on here, and very little time to pause for breath. As an attempt to open the franchise out to newcomers, it has to be judged a success; unencumbered by narrative baggage, Into Darkness roams where it likes, taking old plot points and characters from wherever it likes and moulding them into something fresh and new. Newcomers feel able to enter a world they would otherwise know or care very little about, while those who are more knowledgeable about Trek’s past can enjoy the tips of the hat and revel in the past being recreated with such dynamic verve.

That’s the theory anyway. The other side of the coin is that there is a strong sense of déjà vu hanging over Into Darkness. The central plot tries once again to mimic that of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, the film widely regarded as the franchise’s finest hour. TWOK has long cast a shadow over the series; its epic battle of wills between Kirk and the villainous Khan, a man hell-bent on revenge against the captain of the Enterprise, has inspired many imitations. Thanks to an intelligent, literary script (which elevated an otherwise routine bad-guy-of-the-week plot to near-Shakespearean levels of drama) and Ricardo Montalban’s deliciously muscular performance as Khan, the film delivered everything one could hope for in a Trek film, as well as a surprisingly emotional finale.

Since then, there have been several attempts to replicate its formula, most obviously in 2002’s Star Trek: Nemesis, which saw Patrick Stewart’s Captain Picard face off against a Romulan clone of himself, and the 2009 reboot itself, with another Romulan, Nero, hell-bent on avenging the destruction of his planet by trying to kill Spock, whom he held responsible. Into Darkness’ idea of a conspiracy within the Federation to kickstart a war has also been seen before, in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, while 1998’s Star Trek: Insurrection similarly exposed dubious goings-on within the Federation’s own ranks. And the déjà vu doesn’t end there; when Leonard Nimoy is crowbarred into an entirely unnecessary cameo, you can’t help but feel that too much old ground is being trodden once again.

So how does this new take on familiar material stand up? It’s a fun ride, certainly: there’s action by the bucketload and the special effects continue to dazzle. Cocky young Kirk and his crew are an interesting bunch to be around. But will anyone remember this as fondly as they remember the earlier adventures? The performances are good, the script okay (plot recycling notwithstanding), but it seems to be all surface, no depth; the emotional core of the story is impossible to connect to when the action is dialled up to 11. Into Darkness is a hyperactive pastiche. Perhaps that’s the right attitude for this early stage of Kirk’s career, but if so, then this story is all wrong. There will come a time to deal with conspiracies and vengeful villains, but it’s not now. First he has to live; first he has to make enemies. New enemies.

Of course, this won’t matter one jot to those who love nu-Trek and view the classic era as old hat. Abrams’s shiny reinvention of the Star Trek world continues to be enjoyable. But for those of us who do remember the original era, and remember it fondly, there’s little going on here that hasn’t been done before, and done better. By pillaging from Trek’s finest hour, Abrams and his writers are inviting comparisons, and this time they aren’t all that flattering.

[xrr rating=3/5]

Iron Man 3 (and the Marvel Effect)

Iron Man 3 posterIron Man 3 opened last week in UK cinemas to the collective sounds of ringing tills, rustling popcorn buckets and whoops of delight. It’s one of those rare occasions where multiplex audience approval meshes with universal critical praise. Boasting bags of wit and energy, together with a sympathetic storyline, it’s certainly as good as the first film and possibly the best of the entire Marvel universe to date (though The Avengers remains this writer’s personal favourite). It also wraps up a satisfying trilogy in rousing style (dig those funky closing credits!), leaving the door open to future instalments but providing some degree of closure too.

Looking back, it’s difficult to remember now that the Iron Man franchise was never a sure thing; the character had nothing like the public recognition factor of, say, Spider-Man or the Incredible Hulk. Yet today it is notable for serving as the launchpad for the Marvel Cinematic Universe, an ambitious attempt to replicate the world of comic-books on the big screen by having various characters star in their own film series, while also allowing them to crossover into other titles/films as part of a larger shared story. Facing bankruptcy in the 1990s, Marvel sold the film rights to their characters left, right and centre, making the idea of a shared universe all but impossible; Hollywood studios being famously protective of their properties. As the rights slowly reverted back to them, the idea of a cinematic universe gradually turned from pipe dream to realistic possibility, though questions remained as to whether it was financially feasible, let alone practicable. Would audiences be willing to stay (and pay) for the long haul? What if one of them tanked at the box office?

It was an audacious gamble, but Marvel Studios – the movie producing arm of Marvel Comics, itself now a subsidiary of Disney – pulled it off with a degree of success nobody expected. With Iron Man, Captain America and Thor tentpole franchises all up and running (part of what is now called Phase One), further Hulk and Avengers adventures planned (Phase Two), plus new characters waiting in the wings with their own movies (including Edgar Wright’s take on Ant-Man), Marvel’s competitors over at DC must be drooling with envy. Batman has always brought home the box-office bacon, but success elsewhere hasn’t been forthcoming, though this year’s Superman reboot Man of Steel looks to be a significant first step in building up a serious response.

How have they achieved this success? True, there is an insatiable thirst for superheroes at the movies these days, but it’s not only that (just ask DC). It comes down to three things: wooing the existing fanbase with the use of popular storylines, faithful portrayals of key personnel and a smattering of ‘easter eggs’ for long-time readers; updating their origins and surroundings to make it easy for non-fans to climb aboard; and attracting filmmakers with pedigree and appropriate skill sets to make it work. Marvel have emphatically proven that it’s possible to make their films work for just about anyone, whether young or old, nerds or newbies.

Case in point: Iron Man.

Beyond its blockbuster ambitions, one of the most remarkable achievements of the Iron Man franchise has been its ability to blend real world politics and dangers with the soaring adventure and escapism of comic books. They might not have the inflated heavyweight drama of Christopher Nolan’s lauded Dark Knight trilogy, which similarly layered political elements into its narrative, but then they had no need to. Marvel and DC have always been very different kettles of fish, treating their superhero subjects in their own distinctive ways. Where the Batman films bent over backwards to make its characters and storylines as credible as possible within its shadowy world of corruption and personal sacrifice, Iron Man has been refreshingly carefree in its approach, happy to let the fun rise to the top with a quip and a smirk, though not at the expense of emotion or its contemporary context.

Iron Man 3 poster

That real-world milieu drives themes that run through much of the trilogy’s storylines; among them terrorism, the global arms trade, global stock markets, backdoor political dealings, and of course super hi-tech advanced technology (which, in the age of Google Glasses, seems less futuristic with each passing day). The third film goes one step further, using bioengineered suicide bombers as the chief weapon in The Mandarin’s arsenal – extrapolating and exploring a real world problem through the medium of a superhero adventure. It’s a neat trick to pull off without making it seem cheap and tasteless.

But the main thrust of the plot in IM3 sees the past return to bite Tony on the ass once again. The arrogance of his former life and his ability to create weapons of enormous power combine to put his life, as well as that of his precious Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) and his countrymen too, in danger. It’s a recipe that’s been used in all three films to various extents, and many other comic-book adaptations besides, but hey – if it works, it works. After travelling his road to Damascus, life’s been far from easy for him – so he’s earned our sympathy.

What’s more surprising is that, in these financially austere times, so many people have taken a self-declared “genius billionaire playboy philanthropist” to heart. He’s almost an updated version of one of those dapper, debonair, gentleman heroes from the 1930s, like The Saint or The Falcon: handsome, resourceful, unflappable, ready with a wisecrack no matter how desperate the situation, and all too aware of how swoony he is. You need just the right sort of actor for that sort of role, which brings us neatly to Robert Downey Jr; the undisputed heart and soul of the franchise, and the man born to play Stark. Audiences adore him, especially those normally averse to superhero silliness. His electric performances have not only raised the profile of a character previously considered to be in Marvel’s second tier, but have also infused a spirit of wit and spontaneity into a massive Hollywood money-making machine – no mean feat.

The actor has spoken in the past about how dialogue was often improvised on the set of the original film as a way of circumventing a problematic script, and that impulsive, almost impudent tone has seemingly carried on through the sequels. Has there ever been a franchise based on a previously existing character so conspicuously steered by and built around its star? For now Downey Jr IS Tony Stark – it’s nigh on impossible to imagine anyone else playing the character. That’s not to say the role won’t be recast at some point – of course it will – but whoever fills those shoes better have damn big feet. Marvel would be wise to keep him onboard for as long as they possibly can.

With Downey Jr currently out of contract, Iron Man may no longer be the supporting pillar of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but it’s done its job. As Phase Two begins, can this venture continue to grow without him? That remains to be seen; if there are wobbles along the way, don’t be too surprised if Tony drops by to check up on things. Let’s hope so – we’ll miss him if he’s gone for too long. Swoon.

[xrr rating=4/5]

Review: Oblivion (2013)

Oblivion posterTom Cruise tackles space invaders in Oblivion, a half decent science fiction film constructed from stitched together parts of older and better science fiction films – a Frankenstein’s Monster of a sci-fi film, if you like. While being a perfectly respectable attempt at forging a story that attempts to engage the brain as well as dazzle the eyes, there is nothing here that you haven’t seen before. In fact there’s some fun to be had in identifying its various constituent parts; there are bits and pieces pinched from the likes of Silent Running, WALL-E, The Matrix, RoboCop, Planet of the Apes, Independence Day, I Am Legend, and quite a few others. That wouldn’t be so bad if writer-director Joseph Kosinski had moulded them into something different or added to them with a few new ideas, but no such luck.

That said, it’s refreshing to see a genre piece that has enough confidence to take the time to establish an atmosphere and tone – a throwback to the days when science fiction could still be serious. The terrific production design goes some way to giving it an identity of its own, and there are several arresting images, not least of which is that of a disintegrated moon, its remnants still mournfully orbiting the Earth as though it hadn’t quite realised it had been blown apart.

Oblivion also represents the closest melding of film with the computer game and graphic novel we’ve seen yet. Based on a comic book that was never published, it almost feels like it might have existed in any or all of those media, and which format you chose hardly mattered. Perhaps this is the most interesting aspect of the film, pointing to a growing trend of technological convergence.

The cast are all solid enough, with Andrea Riseborough the standout among the supporting players. As reliable as he is, the casting of Cruise only hampers the attempt to inject real drama in to the story, because his screen persona is by now one of invulnerability and Oblivion does little to examine or subvert that. It’s a little slow in parts, but otherwise worth a trip to see on the big screen.

[xrr rating=3/5]

Review: The Last Stand (2013)

Arnold Schwarzenegger’s comeback movie is a pretty standard action thriller, which updates Rio Bravo and Assault on Precinct 13 to the present day. Arnie plays a US sheriff in the small, quiet town of Somerton on the Mexican border. The leader of a major criminal gang has just escaped the clutches of the FBI (led by a slumming Forest Whitaker) and is headed straight for Somerton in order to escape justice forever. Only Arnie and his ill-equipped buddies stand in the way. Director Jee-woon Kim (whose The Good, the Bad, the Weird also harked back to the westerns of yore) fails to add much visual interest to this routine adventure, while the lazy casting of Luis Guzmán and Johnny Knoxville as comedy sidekicks pretty much says it all. Even so, after a slow start it does become an enjoyable, if somewhat silly, adventure. Arnold’s acting is creakier than ever, but if you’re in the right mood it’s good for some nostalgic kicks.

[xrr rating=2/5]

Review: The Master (2012)

The Master posterI take no pleasure in saying this, but The Master just isn’t very good.

It’s currently being feted by critics as one of 2012’s finest movies, shooting to the top of various Best Film of the Year lists (including that of The Guardian), and it’s not hard to see why: it tackles weighty, dramatic themes in its story of a drifter being recruited in to a cult-ish movement led by a charismatic phony; the post-war American setting allows for an examination of that country’s values at a time when it is steeped in nostalgia; the two lead performances by Philip Seymour Hoffman and Joaquin Phoenix are given plenty of room to breathe and add layers to the narrative; and of course there is the much-trumpeted fact that it was shot on 70mm film, the first full-length US production to do so in more than 15 years.

But all of that sturdy worthiness can’t disguise the fact that The Master is a chore to watch. Its 2 hours 24 minute running time feels at least double that. The story starts slowly, building a little  intrigue as we watch Freddie Quell (Phoenix) flit from job to job and town to town, and gets a mite more interesting when Lancaster Dodd (Hoffman) turns up on a ship with the rest of his movement and (in the film’s best scene) interrogates Quell before admitting him to the family. And then the film flatlines.

A battle of wills emerges between the two men, with neither one able or willing to change. Nothing interesting happens. They shout a bit, they party a bit, Quell gets restless, Dodd gets arrested. But nothing happens that draws you in. The story doesn’t evolve. It just goes on and on.

Director Paul Thomas Anderson has been compared to Stanley Kubrick in some quarters, given his undeniably intellectual approach to cinema. But what worked in There Will Be Blood and Magnolia fails to work here. The only aspect of The Master that recalls Kubrick is its cold, distant approach to the characters. Oh, and its obsession with sex – in particular the nude scene, which was laughably pretentious and merely drew attention to itself.

As for the 70mm footage, it felt entirely wasted. If Anderson wanted to make a film visually dominated by personalities and faces, then fine. But did he need to use such expensive materials to do so? It wasn’t even proper widescreen. Imagine what David Lean could have done with all that film.

It is entirely possible that The Master will reveal greater depths upon subsequent viewings, but I can’t imagine I’ll ever have the desire to try and get through it again. It was a big disappointment in a year that has otherwise offered plenty of very good, though not great, films. If it ends up scooping the big prizes in the imminent awards season, I’ll be even more disappointed.

[xrr rating=2/5]

Review: Dredd 3D (2012)

The ranks of fan-pleasing comic book movies swells further with Dredd 3D, a modestly-budgeted but surprisingly effective adaptation of 2000 AD’s cult futuristic law enforcer. Wisely ignoring the unloved 1995 blockbuster starring Sylvester Stallone, the producers get back to basics, replacing CGI spectacle and star power with a notably stripped back production, a lean plot (largely confined to a tower block), and more emphasis on violent action – surely the major draw for most fans. The gamble largely works, with the film’s brief 96 minutes offering plenty of down and dirty mayhem.

Karl Urban makes for a fine Judge Dredd, physically imposing, with a suitably growling voice (and yes, his face remains entirely obscured throughout).  Director Pete Travis provides plenty of noisy action, but keeps the focus on Dredd and villainess Ma-Ma (Lena Headey, equally good). Though it’s an entertaining ride, it remains rather conventional; there are no outstanding moments or set-pieces that might have helped the film move outside of its rather niche target audience and in to wider cult waters. A braver director might have taken a few more risks to help the film punch above its weight. But no matter; this is a decent effort that deserves  a bigger and better sequel.

[xrr rating=3/5]