13 May 2015

Review: Mad Max: Fury Road (George Miller, USA,/Aus, 2015)


Before embarking down “Fury Road” I tasked myself with revisiting the franchise's previous installments, starting with 1979's “Mad Max”. After 40 minutes I abandoned the project. Looking back at director George Miller's first foray into apocalyptic, Australian carnage, one sees a lot to admire, but little to captivate, the film harshly dated thanks to 35 years of genre evolution. I consider myself a lover of cinema spanning the breadth of history, but sometimes, you just gotta admit when a movie ain't playing. With its simplistic plotting, delayed emotional payload and interchangeable supporting thugs “Mad Max” is an antique rather than something with any pragmatic use in the current climate. Which makes “Mad Max: Fury Road” all the more exciting. A lean, demented journey, this fourth outing in the series might be the hippest film directed by an old guy since“The Wolf of Wall Street” (George Miller is now going on 70). It's a barmy but appreciatively forward thinking cocktail of grungy, sun-drenched mania, a molasses of new technology and character, all captured within a stripped down narrative aesthetic worthy of the original's B-movie persuasion.

The year is 2060 and the world is in pieces. Max (Tom Hardy) wanders a barren stretch of baked wilderness known as the Wasteland, haunted by the ghosts of his deceased family. After being captured by a race of mutants known as War Boys, Max bands up with Furiosa (Charlize Theron), a revolutionary seeking to free five captive women from the rule of the War Boys' leader Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne). Escaping in an armoured rig; Max, Furiosa and the wives propel toward the harmonious promise of a homeland untouched by death, pursued with relentless vigour by Joe and his army of savages.

Last year I criticised “Godzilla” for relegating its titular hero to the level of cameo player. “Mad Max: Fury Road” does much the same, but this time it's a move that empowers the material. Hardy grunts and carries himself with physical grace, but “Fury Road” belongs to its women, a cast of ladies diverse in age, but wholly capable of kicking butt. Back in 2011 the film actually had Furiosa as a subtitle, before ditching it in favour of the more commercial “Fury Road”. An understandable adjustment in a “Fast & Furious” marketplace, but Theron's liberator is profoundly more thrilling than any haggard, stretch of asphalt. The actress goes head to head with Hardy in the brooding stakes, but her character's motivations are richer (one of the movie's few overt failings is to colour Max's backstory with anything fresh), and her struggle to deliver the breeders to paradise more interesting. Whilst the action manages to blend hysteria with coherency, the women are what really set “Fury Road” apart. They're all (including the reappearance of Megatron's least favourite gal pal Rosie Huntington-Whiteley - actually putting her angelic countenance to fine use here) active, unique agents within the construct, Miller and his co-writers displaying nothing but eagerness to have them supersede Max at the movie's centre. Thematically “Fury Road” amounts to a loud rejection of Hollywood's traditional gender bias, and patriarchy itself, transforming its cast of wives from biological vessels of consumption (used for sex and reproduction) into formidable heroines. Superficially “Fury Road” has the wives respond to Furiosa's charge, muscling into a masculine territory with increased competency, but the feature also underlines the delicate beauty of female identity (as opposed to the rowdy din of man), casting its morally sound, beautifully presented wives as pillars of virtue, compassion and reason. No male presence in the feature displays the same rationality or decency, even Hardy.

The action is phenomenally well staged. It's exciting, daringly choreographed and filled with weight. Every crunch, scream and explosion registers with impact, the sort only balls out practical effects allow for. The opening, a manic chase through sandstorms and desert perhaps goes on for too long, but it sets a frenzied tone the picture honours diligently, and later beats are equally as bombastic, whilst anchored in a more obviously humanist agenda. Comics and videogames influence the distinctively graded frames and cacophonous set-pieces, filtered through a fearsome R-rated aesthetic. The movie isn't excessively violent, but fists land with WALLOPS and viscera spurts in big, dirty heaves. Miller isn't afraid to absorb the setting and hold on its organic composition, even the sandy dunes feel rich with texture, or point toward weird little touches outside of the central chase. There's no requirement for “Fury Road” to unfurl in a fully realised universe, but Miller provides us with one anyway. That's how seriously he's taking the journey, and indicative of how complete it feels.

It's an exhausting flick, but “Fury Road” is all about pleasure over punishment. The sensory overload - including a score courtesy of Junkie XL which sounds like a Chumbawamba cover via Trent Reznor - drains your reserves, providing a cathartic hit akin to a subversive Space Mountain. Maybe Miller would rebuke a reading of the film that delves too deeply into any perceived political subtext, so I'll leave you on a final thought. Maybe, one day, in an ideal world, this film with its complex heroines, progressive attitude and daring action will play like “Mad Max” circa 1979. Dated and routine.

Wouldn't that be just lovely?

Except, any movie where Charlize Theron triumphantly rips a baddie's face off is never going to feel routine. But you get the picture.

A Review by Daniel Kelly, 2015

9 May 2015

Angst through Sex & Skype - It Follows & Unfriended

Earlier this year It Follows opened to strong reviews and leggy box-office. 

Well, for a movie about a shape-shifting, killer STI that is.  

A sophomore venture for film-maker David Robert Mitchell, Follows commences with a sequence that establishes the piece's proclivity for eerie minimalism and celebratory nostalgia, using an unbroken 360 pan and the sort of retro-synth score propagated by last year's The Guest & 2011's Drive, to convey the aura of a creepy throwback interested in mystery and the awful potential in suburbia for suppressed horror. Unfortunately the feature doesn't evolve much beyond its inspired bow, elevating sub-text to flat text, failing to sketch more than one compelling character and succumbing to a monotonous middle act, all basked in the electronic rays of a score more interested in reference than the gestation of fear. Despite its ambition, and intermittently inspired framing, It Follows chalks up as a bore.

Last week saw the release of Unfriended in the UK, the latest horror picture from the Blumhouse (Paranormal Activity, Sinister) stable. Played entirely over the desktop of High-School senior Blaire (Shelley Hennig), the picture observes a Skype conversation between friends descend into a breeding ground for terror, the ghost of a suicidal buddy emerging to haunt the digital soiree. It's unapologetically high-concept, and at a lean, visceral 83 minutes Unfriended gets business done, fast. Thematically and aesthetically the film also feels like a step-forward for horror cinema, whilst It Follows plays like a - admittedly loving - regression. Don't get me wrong, Unfriended isn't a great movie, but it is a virtuosos experiment, and one that successfully excites and pokes the audience for the entirety of its refreshingly trim running.

The films are bound because they centre on adolescent experience. On the surface It Follows might appear the more universally resonant work, courting the primal emotions and guilt which surround teen sexuality, a narrative aspect that pre-dates cinema itself. On the other hand Unfriended engages with the Millenials' wired in approach to culture, society and information. The entire picture, including diegetic score and exposition feed through wi-fi, whilst allegiances and relationships are articulated using various private applications, helping our teens to hide from the all-encompassing Skype call at the movie's core. It's interesting even when compacted into such a languid sentence, but irrefutably these aspects mark Unfriended as a prospective time capsule. Relevant to a generation or three, but doomed to the recyclables as soon as the words Spotify, ichat and Skype no longer factor into daily discourse.

Except that's not the case at all.

With its rather sensationalist but unsettling depiction of bullying, Unfriended finds genuine moral weight, and plugs it into a visually exciting fright-machine that scares and provokes in equal measure. The human characters aren't individually complex, but these archetypes are sustainable over 83 minutes. In that time, screenwriter Nelson Greaves, uses broad but sufficiently vibrant strokes to set his cast apart from each other, to convince an audience that they interpret, feel and react to terror in different ways. The sullen, unmotivated teens at the heart of Mitchell's work bleed into one, a selection of deliberately pretty-downed and insular Midwestern grumps who - for me at least – fail to project tangible empathy. Mitchell plants all of his terror into concept, whilst Greaves splits it evenly between that and character. As a result, the latter film manages to evoke a humanist bent, and left me more satisfied.

One of the biggest problems with It Follows is its slavish obsession to genre work of the 70s. Mitchell (Aged around 40, youngish for a director but schooled in life) pumps in obvious visual cues to Halloween and Jaws, whilst drowning potentially tense moments in a retro score that sounds cool on an ipod, but swallows his movie whole. Mitchell favours a much slower-burn approach to his horror than Unfriended helmer Leo Gabriadze, yet rarely takes full advantage of his indulgent, softly lit compositions, generally because the music chokes them out. Gabriadze on the other hand ties contemporary manic teenage attitudes into the very aesthetic of his movie. The lead, Blaire, never takes time to moodily style her hair or fret, instead she leaps from one form of communication to the next and combats the deathly possibility of silence with an indie playlist. Unfriended never pauses for breath, it pulls deep at the start, then shoots for the finish line. The slick execution serves the guilt-laden drama brewing between its smarmy protagonists, as things ramp toward a rapid,visceral conclusion. Unfriended is a forward thinking horror effort, representative of Ritalin-prescribed kids more likely to have Nandos than 'Nam at the root of their subconscious. 

Even the fundamental tone of It Follows lags in comparison to Unfriended. Mitchell's work replicates the Michael Myers routine, the ambling, but unstoppable force that our heroes can't ever expect to defeat. It's still a chilling idea, but the execution owes such an obvious debt to the work of Carpenter or Bob Clark, that it becomes monotonous before the first hour clocks out. The monster appears and shuffles a bit, made more interesting in that only its designated victim can see it. This offers the picture a welcome lashing of paranoia, but even that's only good for one or two sequences, before fading in order for the sub-Halloween gumption to resume. Tedium sets in fast. On the other hand Unfriended totally embraces the possibility of the internet, tapping into the social-networking facade, and calling out the lack of accountability online presence promotes. The frights unfold like a gory, punchy game of spin the bottle, but the articulation of this lost generations' refusal to face reality, hiding behind screens, adds a serious dash of intelligence to the violence. Unfriended pivots around the tension of multiple mistruths, the erosion of true friendship and aversion to flesh on flesh sexuality in the 21st century. The suspense inherent to a band of liars, willing to do anything for their lives, is practically endless.

Both works are deserving of academic excavation and engagement, but only one stands out as multiplex hit worth inhaling. Unfriended, whilst never jeopardizing its conscience,provides a nastier more immersive narrative experience, as opposed to the clinical yet cold beauty that seems to be Mitchell's utmost concern. These are ideas movies, and for that alone deserve praise, but this writer would urge you to disregard critical consensus and view both pieces with an open mind. One's an art installation fronted by a cine-literate malcontent,  the other's a roller-coaster manned by a cyber psychologist.  I know for which I'd pay again.

An article by Daniel Kelly, 2015

1 May 2015

Review: Avengers: Age of Ultron (Joss Whedon, USA, 2015)


As the credits rolled at my screening of “Avengers: Age of Ultron” an odd mood set in. It's wasn't one of disdain, or even disappointment, but rather the sort of ceremonial resignation usually reserved for Christmas mass. Avenging wrought, we awaited an after credits titbit, our own slice of Gold, Myrrh and Frankincense. People hung by the door, shuffling - wanting to depart - but unable, lest they missed the sight of an evil dude fiddling with a regal looking glove for 12 seconds. It came. It went. We left.

Is this event cinema in 2015?

In fairness there's very little obviously wrong with “Age of Ultron”, but that doesn't necessarily make it right. The film, cut rigorously from the Marvel formula, boasts a tirelessly committed cast, but strangely never gears up to the giddy 11 which allowed its predecessor to bank a billion back in 2012. Perhaps it's simply fading novelty that disservices the picture, but that might be to undersell a more symptomatic problem. In contemporary cultural discourse superheroes are prime currency, yet no economy is invulnerable to depression. “Age of Ultron” won't be the film to sink the ship, but it might prove vital in pin-pointing the instant this industry started to sour. The stars are out, the budget's big and it certainly goes well with a diet coke. Still, one suspects that whilst the lights are on, Joss Whedon's not always home.

“Ultron” opens with a spectacular (albeit digitally stitched) one-take, a paean to the awe these characters instill. Since kicking off with “Iron Man” in 2008, this generation of Marvel has gone from strength to strength, building an admittedly impressive tradition of entertaining fare. It's the superb cast that have made this such a possibility. “Ultron” basks in the brilliance of its performers, and a take on the material that prioritises humanist concerns and levity over superficial brooding. The worst comic-book movies (I'm thinking “Daredevil” and “Ghost-Rider”) presume a level of sophistication because of how they're lit, or due to the fact the leading man elects to growl every syllable of dialogue; all the time dancing around a pre-pubescent conceptualisation of angst. Whedon takes very plain, very common motifs and executes them with sincerity and wit. It's been his bread and butter since “Buffy”, and he remains a consummate pro in the field. When “Ultron” works its because Whedon nurtures tender beats, particularly between Johansson's Black Widow and Ruffalo's (this time under-used) Hulk. Two of the franchise's more tortured and understated souls make for a well-matched romantic duet. It never becomes a suffocating facet of the whole, instead Whedon lets it breath nicely between action beats, ageing into future installments with all manner of emotional stakes still in play. This stuff works, and highlights what charms about Whedon's approach. On the other hand...

The ironic quips feel forced, and the action's unmemorable. The scale is never in question, but beyond the aforementioned opening it's hard to recall much of the robo-bashing that consumes the rest of the picture's budget. New characters float in and out (including a promising bow for the radiant Elizabeth Olsen), but a slavish adherence to in-house structure, and Whedon forcing himself to regurgitate the more superficial elements of his artistic identity (the dialogue is much too ripe in places) render the sequel a consumer good. As Ultron, a menacing but broadly motivated nasty, delivers his doomsday speech, all manner of blurry combat filling the periphery, it's almost impossible not to disengage. The film charges through the Marvel beat sheet, leaving enough plot in the air to rob us of total catharsis, with the promise of further carnage banked. We've been amused, even touched in places, but when push comes to shove, we end up were we always end up.

Waiting in a dimly lit auditorium for brief clues about future adventures.

“Age of Ultron” is the very embodiment of its villain. Cooked up on a whim, glaringly artificial, but with just enough smarts below the bonnet to push it above “Transformers”-esque guff. That'll probably be enough to ensure the sustainment of this team's popularity for now – but not forever.  

A Review by Daniel Kelly, 2015