Mad Max: Fury Road

Brimstone

28/09/17

Westerns are a pretty rare species in this day and age, but even rarer is the Dutch Western – indeed, I can’t think of any others before Martin Koolhaven’s Brimstone, a long and rather visceral story that seems to be mostly a mediation on the awful treatment meted out to women in the Old West. With a variety of locations in Europe standing in (pretty convincingly) for America, the film plays audacious tricks with chronology, jumping backwards from time to time to reveal what happened earlier. It finally zooms back to its starting point for a violent conclusion.

When we first meet Liz (Dakota Fanning), she is a married woman with a stepson and a young daughter to care for. She is also mute and we learn, fairly quickly, this is because she has no tongue. When not working alongside her husband raising sheep, she is the local midwife, helping to deliver her neighbour’s children. But the arrival of The Reverend (Guy Pearce) sends her into an evident state of terror. It’s clear from the first sight of him that the two of them have history and that he is there to exact some kind of vengeance. As the film progresses, we learn more about their past… and it’s not an appealing story. This is a relationship forged in hell.

While I take Koolhaven’s point that women were treated abysmally at that time, I think there’s a fine line between the depiction of such brutality and inviting viewers to relish in those depictions. As I watch, women have their tongues cut out. They are whipped, punched, sexually violated and generally abused. Mind you, the violence is not confined to the female characters. One man has his innards cut out and wrapped around his neck. Another is hanged whilst trying to take a crap. This is clearly not The Little House on the Prairie. Pearce’s character must be one of the most irredeemably malevolent creatures ever committed to film; indeed, the film hints at the fact that he might not even be human, but some kind of supernatural being that simply cannot be killed. It also seems to be putting forward the suggestion that religion is at the heart of all evil

If you can get past all the violence, it has to be said that Brimstone is superbly filmed and acted – it’s great to see Dakota Fanning back on screen and brilliantly handling what must be a very demanding role. I also particularly like the evocative score by Junkie XL (who wrote the music for Mad Max: Fury Road). But to be honest, this is a hard film to enjoy – too heavy-handed in its sadistic depictions of brutality for my taste, even if it does feature some powerful scenes. Game of Thrones fans may like to know that it also features Kit Harrington in a minor role as a gunslinger.

Those of you with sensitive stomachs may want to give this one a miss – and if you’re already upset by the sheer volume of violence against women in film, it’s definitely not for you.

3.4 stars

Philip Caveney

Atomic Blonde

 

 

22/08/17

All those idiots who perpetually bleat that there could never be a female James Bond might care to check this out. If there were any lingering doubts that Charlize Theron can convince as an ass-kicker after Mad Max: Fury Road, then this should dispel those notions completely. Here she plays MI6 agent, Louise Broughton, a kind of Jane Bond figure who apparently subsists on a diet of neat vodka-on-the-rocks and cigarettes, whilst rocking a series of 80s fashions and performing extreme chop socky moves to the strains of classic rock songs. (This is the second film this year to use Flock of Seagulls’ I Ran to excellent effect. Just sayin’).

It’s November 1989 and the Berlin Wall is about to take a permanent dive. Broughton is sent over to Berlin to team up with fellow agent, David Percival (James McAvoy), a man who presents such a dodgy persona, it’s a wonder he can find his own reflection in a mirror. Somebody – Code Name ‘Satchel’ – has procured a list of British agents and their nefarious dealings during the Cold War, a list so incendiary that it mustn’t be allowed to fall into enemy hands. Broughton’s job is to find the list (and hopefully Satchel) and bring them both back to Blighty. But it isn’t an easy task when she can’t trust anybody…

What this basically boils down to is an excuse for a series of bruising action sequences, in which Broughton takes down what seems like a whole army of men, using any weapons at her disposal – a stiletto heel, a frying pan, a bunch of keys – she’s not fussy, she’ll employ anything that comes to hand. The highlight here is a long fight scene on  a staircase. Shot in a continuous take, it sets the bar high for pain and punishment and there’s no doubt that director David Leitch, fresh off John Wick: Chapter Two, knows how to stage a convincing punch-up. I loved the fact that people don’t emerge from one of these skirmishes with a polite spot of blood at the side of their mouth, as we so often witness in this kind of film – no, we regularly see Broughton’s bruised and swollen face and limbs and we quite understand her habit of taking occasional ice baths.

Rather less successful, however, is the plot, which is so labyrinthine as to defy all understanding. Virtually every character we meet is double-crossing somebody else or working for somebody else or pretending to be somebody else. By the conclusion, I thought I had a handle on most of it but I wouldn’t want to testify to it in court – or indeed, in the kind of rigorous debriefing that is used as the framework for Atomic Blonde. There are excellent supporting roles from the likes of Toby Jones, Eddie Marsan and John Goodman, as various men in suits, but this is undeniably a showcase for Theron’s star power and she makes the most of it.

A simpler plot would certainly have made this a better film, overall, but action junkies will love the fights and I’d be lying if I said that I didn’t find them thrilling. If Leitch can marry those superior action chops to a simpler, more convincing storyline, who knows what might be achieved? Here, he manages to win on points rather than achieving a knockout blow. But it’s certainly worth the price of a ringside seat.

3.5 stars

Philip Caveney

Mad Max: Fury Road

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17/05/15

I have to declare from the start that this has been my most eagerly anticipated film of the year. I’ve been a devoted fan of the Mad Max franchise, from its humble B movie origins in 1979, through the awesome action tropes of The Road Warrior in 1981, and on to the inventive storytelling of Beyond Thunderdome in 1985. Through the intervening 35 years… can it really have been that long?… I, like many others have been keeping alive the hope that director George Miller would stop concentrating his talents on anodyne nonsense like Babe and Happy Feet and revisit his glorious, testosterone-fuelled past. And by jove, he’s finally done it – although this time out, he’s added a welcome dash of oestrogen too!

It’s a tough act to follow and a tough act for newbie Max, Tom Hardy, to step into Mel Gibson’s boots – so I’m delighted to report that this is a triumphant return to form and that Fury Road not only equals those earlier efforts but in many ways surpasses them. It’s a blitzkrieg of stunning vehicular chases, amazing stunt work and unforgettable dystopian visions, but it’s also backed up by a compelling central story. As ever in Miller-land, dialogue is kept to a minimum (Hardy doesn’t get to utter so much as a word for the first twenty minutes or so) but there’s so much going on up on the screen, you barely notice.

In a nightmarish, desert landscape, evil dictator Imortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne) has founded an empire built on toil and the exploitation of the weak. (Max fans will remember Keays-Byrne as ‘Toecutter’ in the very first movie.) When one of Joe’s war parties brings in a bearded, half-conscious Max, the captive is summarily shaved, tattooed and branded, and is then assigned to ailing suicide-warrior, Nux (a barely recognisable Nicholas Hoult) as a living blood transfusion unit. However, when one of Joe’s most trusted lieutenants, Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron) decides to abscond with Joe’s five young wives (or his breeding stock, as he so delicately refers to them) Nux is one of the team despatched to bring them back and Max duly finds himself strapped to the front of a truck and hurled headlong into a terrifying chase. We’re taken along for the ride.

And what an unforgettable ride it is! The film leaps effortlessly from one frantic chase to the next, as Miller’s welded-together juggernauts collide, accelerate, swerve and explode in jaw-dropping style. There’s barely a sign of CGI to be seen, everything’s done pretty much for real and it’s little wonder that the closing credits feature what looks like hundreds of stunt performers. But it’s more than just action. Miller’s futuristic world is fully thought-through and dazzlingly captured amidst the stunning Namibian landscapes (this is the first of the series not actually shot in Australia) and there’s so much here to delight and surprise the viewers. Key among them are the manic lead guitarist chained to the front of a truck and pumping out death metal and fire in equal amounts; Joe’s breast-milk pumping parlour, where pregnant women are er… pressed into service; and the tribe of aged motorbiking female warriors who turn up to prove that when it comes to a fight, they’re more than a match for the younger men.

I loved this to pieces. The Mad Max films, though, are cinematic Marmite. If you don’t like what Miller does, this is going to feel like putting your head in a tumble drier and pressing the on switch. If however you like action cinema at its most inventive, this one is for you. One thing. The film was actually shot in 2D and for the 3D version, the process has been retroactively applied, which never makes for a good transfer; but trust me. You won’t need 3D for this. It’s eye-popping enough without.

5 stars

Philip Caveney

03/06/15

Ahem! Time to eat a few slices of humble pie. After my suggestion that there was no need to see Mad Max; Fury Road in 3D as it hadn’t actually been shot that way, a couple of friends contacted me to say they’d seen it in 3D and it looked pretty damned good to them. So I broke the habit of a lifetime and went back to the cinema to check out their claims. I have to admit that my friends were absolutely spot on. Not only does this movie bear repeated viewing (it really is that good) it also looks eye-poppingly brilliant in 3D and effortlessly leaps into the ranks of my favourite films in that format – Gravity, Hugo, Avatar and er… Piranha 3D. In fact, if i see a better film this year than MMFR, I’ll be very surprised.