Film critic Alistair Harkness offers us his take on the latest cinematic releases
Mad Max: Fury Road (15)
Rating: * * * *
Directed by: George Miller
Starring: Tom Hardy, Charlize Theron, Nicholas Hoult, Hugh Keays-Byrne
As a character, Mad Max was never all that mad, at least not in a bull-goose-loony, nuttier-than-squirrel-shit way. He was angry-as-hell mad – at his wife and child being mowed down in the first movie, at his dog being killed in Mad Max 2, at the mullet he was forced to endure for the beginning of the third outing – but Mel Gibson only went properly crazy on screen as Martin Riggs in Lethal Weapon. As the Road Warrior Max Rockatansky – blue eyes burning more fiercely from behind the wheel of his gun-metal-black Pursuit Special than anything emanating from its supercharged V8 engine – he was primal and nihilistic, a monosyllabic punk rock angel of death dispensing vehicular vengeance upon a gloriously demented carnival of highway-riding freaks.
In writer/director George Miller’s deliriously deranged return to that cinematic world, that’s changed slightly. The name remains a statement of intent for the series as a whole, but the eponymous Max is now as certifiable as the action that made the first two movies stone-cold classics (before the blockbuster-softened Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome poured studio sugar in the gas tank and brought the barmy franchise to a sputtering halt). Now played by Tom Hardy, the Max of Fury Road is a twitchy-eyed desert outlaw who hears voices in his head and sees visions of the wife and child he wasn’t around to save during a hinted-at global catastrophe that has made gasoline, water and bullets scarce commodities. “It’s hard to know who’s more crazy,” Max muses during a brief scene-setting voice-over as he’s being pursued across the scorched earth of this post-apocalyptic wasteland by a gang of maniacal marauders: “Me – or everyone else?”
Miller’s not in any hurry to provide an answer to that query either: with a $150 million budget at his disposal he’s thumbed his nose at the conventions of safe franchise filmmaking and delivered a properly out-there old-school exploitation flick that eschews the focus-grouped spectacle of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and its myriad bandwagon-jumpers to revel instead in the fringe lunacy of its own low-budget inspirations. This is a film, after all, that boasts war-mongering tribes of albino cave dwellers having blood transfused into their bodies mid-car chase. It’s a film in which drinking water shortages are offset by breast milk being produced on an industrial scale from chained-up wet nurses. It’s also a film in which the chief villain’s fuel-scavenging gangs soundtrack their attacks by strapping a masked guitarist to a truck front-loaded with amplifiers so he can blast out thrash metal licks on a fire-shooting axe while being driven at ludicrous speeds through desolate terrain.
Resembling the subjects of a Diane Arbus exhibit brought to life in the aftermath of a nuclear holocaust, these freaks are unconcerned with being likeable or relatable. The same goes for Max, who spends the first chunk of the movie incarcerated by Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne), the demented warlord of a post-apocalyptic stronghold known as the Citadel. Branded, muzzled and soon strapped to the ship-like bow of a combat vehicle being driven by Immortan Joe’s glory-seeking footsoldier Nux (Nicholas Hoult), Max unwittingly finds himself part of a cavalcade of chaos in hot pursuit of Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron). She’s a shaven-headed, one-armed rebel who’s covertly liberated Immortan Joe’s harem of beautiful, scantily clad “breeders” and is attempting to drive them across the desert in a tricked-out oil tanker to the safety of a possibly mythic land she vaguely recalls from her childhood.
Plot-wise, things don’t get much more detailed or complex than that; Miller has stripped things down to an admirably primal level in order to deliver the requisite carmageddon action – which the film does to breath-taking effect. As Max and Furiosa grudgingly pair up so she can fulfil her feminist-tinged mission to end Immortan Joe’s tyranny and he can survive as best he can, they’re pursued by hordes of motorbikes, dune buggies, trucks and hot-rods, all of which have been Frankensteined with industrial add-ons and specialist modifications to better aid their destructive potential.
The resulting film is essentially one long car chase, and yet because it’s presented as an operatic symphony of automotive carnage, it’s never dull. Miller conducts the mayhem with a maestro’s understanding of harmony, layering all the spectacular crashes, airborne collisions, pole-vaulting action and inter-vehicle punch-ups into dizzying arpeggios of annihilation that give narrative shape to the sort of action-movie melee that could have resulted in less sure hands. As such there’s no need to try and fit this into the timeline of Gibson’s outings or tie the movies together in any way beyond the character’s vague backstory or the film’s gonzo spirit and commitment to practical effects. It’s an authentic Mad Max movie without being slavishly bound to the past – a radical notion that’s so crazy it just works.
The Clouds of Sils Maria (15)
Directed by: Olivier Assayas
Starring: Juliette Binoche, Kristen Stewart, Chloë Grace Moretz
Rating: * * * *
Intergenerational conflict is given an intriguing, satirical spin in writer/director Olivier Assayas’s new drama about an ageing actress (Juliette Binoche) coerced into confronting societal and professional prejudice after being tempted back onto the stage to play the older lead in a play that 20 years earlier provided her with her breakthrough as the ingénue. That role is now to be played by a tabloid-bating young movie star (Chloë Grace Moretz, clearly channelling Lindsay Lohan) whose public and private lives are intertwined for all to see on the internet. Maria’s unease about committing to the play has less to do with her new co-star’s notoriety than her own approach to acting: her identity is so tied up in the younger part preserved forever in the text that she can’t really contemplate embodying a character she’s always considered to be much weaker than she is herself in real life.
Loosely based on the eternal conflict between age and youth explored in All About Eve and Rainer Fassbinder’s twisted, pseudo remake The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant, the film doesn’t actually focus all that much on the relationship between the two actresses (they don’t even meet until quite late in the film). Instead it homes in on the co-dependent relationship Binoche’s Maria Enders has formed with her long-suffering assistant Valentine (a very good Kristen Stewart), who’s part of that invisible matrix of young, hyper-efficient PAs that hold the entertainment industry together by micro-managing the private and professional lives of the talent they’re hired to look after.
It’s here that Assayas starts having some fun with the meta nature of the story. As Maria and Valentine retreat to the Swiss Mountain retreat of the play’s recently deceased author, the film starts blurring the boundaries between the emotionally abusive lesbian relationship at the heart of the play they’re rehearsing and the never fully articulated tensions that exist between Maria and Valentine. What follows is a deftly constructed, psychologically complex interrogation of professional insecurity and ageing, one given an extra satirical kick by Assayas’ veteran status within the industry and his cast’s willingness to riff on their own public personas (and those of their peers). Stewart’s particularly impressive in this respect – and funny too. Her thinly veiled reflections on the nature of celebrity and Hollywood franchise culture could be read as her exorcising the ghost of Twilight (“There’s a werewolf in it, for some reason,” she quips at one point, summarily dismissing a movie offer for Maria). But at the same time, Valentine’s repeated and impassioned defence of low culture, particularly its ability to get to the heart of the matter in more emotionally direct ways than esoteric arthouse fare, also feels like Assayas calling out his own film’s entertainingly pretentious nature.
Pitch Perfect 2 (12A)
Directed by: Elizabeth Banks
Starring: Rebel Wilson, Anna Kendrick
Rating: * *
Proving that sequel bloat doesn’t just happen in superhero movies, but comedies as well, Pitch Perfect 2 amplifies all the best gags from the first film instead of crafting a story that justifies the characters’ return. What discernible plot there is kicks off with a retread of collegiate a cappella group The Bellas once again embarrassing themselves in public, forcing them to once again learn to work together as a team so they can once again compete in another hokey a cappella championship. Rebel Wilson’s Fat Amy moves from supporting player to co-lead, but her schtick proves increasingly wearisome as the film proves overly reliant on her to supply something of interest on screen to distract from the dreary subplot with which Anna Kendrick’s Beca is saddled. The surreal delights of Hana Mae Lee’s horrifying confessional mumbles in the first film are also diminished thanks to the throwaway nature of that joke becoming a heavily sign-posted source for yucks here. Co-star Elizabeth Banks makes this her directorial debut, but her preference for plot-padding non sequiturs adds nothing but time to an already stretched-thin premise.
A Royal Night Out (12A)
Directed by: Julian Jarrold
Starring: Sarah Gadon, Bel Powley, Jack Reynor, Rupert Everett
A specious “inspired by a true story” slice of Royalist claptrap, this King’s Speech-style wannabe takes the future Queen’s night out with Princess Margaret on VE Day 1945 as the jumping off point for an awfully spiffing adventure in which jolly commoners harangue the incognito heir to the throne (played by Sarah Gadon) for having no bus fare while “Princess Number Two” gets off her face on Benzedrine and champagne while being escorted round Soho knocking shops with various nefarious gentlemen. As entertainingly scandalous as the latter subplot sounds, the young Princess Margaret’s debauchery is handled in strictly non-treasonous, end-of-the-pier fashion (though Bel Powley at least tries to inject some genuine mischief into her performance). The bulk of the film, however, focuses on Gadon’s dull turn as Princess Lizzy Bet and her friendship with Jack Reynor’s oblivious working class soldier. Rupert Everett throws in a few stutters and splutters as King George to remind you of the film’s vague connection to that Colin Firth Oscar-winner.
The Tribe (18)
Directed by: Miroslav Slaboshpitsky
Starring: Grigoriy Fesenko, Yana Novikova, Alexander Dsiadevich
Rating: * * * *
Set in Kiev, in a state-run boarding school for deaf adolescents, Miroslav Slaboshpitsky’s debut feature (left) is a remarkable piece of formalistic filmmaking that proves how little conventional information is required to communicate a story effectively.
Featuring an entirely deaf cast conversing in untranslated sign language, the film has no subtitles, inter-titles, dialogue, voiceover or explanatory text whatsoever. Instead, as it follows a new pupil (Grigoriy Fesenko) as he’s initiated into a secret criminal subculture run out of the school, the only sound non-deaf audiences are privy to is the ambient background noise of daily life, which, unaccompanied by dialogue, takes on an eerie, alienating quality that at first represents the marginalised status of its characters in society in general, but quickly draws us in by forcing us to construct meaning from visual information in front of us.
The end result is like nothing else out there and while the violence that accompanies the characters’ fates requires a strong stomach, this is a compelling experiment in pure cinema that’s worth experiencing.