MAN UP and HE NAMED ME MALALA

Man-Up-2015

* (out of five)

Simon Pegg is a talented and successful man of the movies. Besides Spaced and “the Cornetto trilogy” of Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz and The World’s End – his almost always excellent collaborations with writer / director Edgar Wright – and his occupation of second-tier funnyman in the Mission Impossible, Star Trek and (new) Star Wars franchises, he’s also a seriously well-endowed screenwriter, including being one of only two credited writers on the next Trek flick. So what in the world is he doing in this abomination of a RomCom? What could he have possibly seen in Tess Morris’s laugh-free script?

Perhaps the whole thing is intended as post-modern, including, as it does, every single RomCom cliché from the manual, including the running and public declaration at the end. But it’s not funny ironic, it’s not funny straight, it’s not funny anything. It’s embarrassing from start to finish and Pegg looks deeply uncomfortable in it.

He and Lake Bell (an American doing, it must be said, a flawless Brit accent) play a couple of Londonistas who meet on a blind date meant for someone else (in that he was meant to meet a different she under a clock, but she happened to be standing there). We follow them through an afternoon into an evening, painfully.

The film, directed by Ben Palmer (The Inbetweeners Movie) looks awful. Scenes in a bowling alley and Waterloo Station, in particular, are about as horribly lit as you can imagine cinema being capable of short of the camera pointed directly at a naked bulb. There is a fine piece of character work being done by always reliable Rory Kinnear. The rest is drivel.

he-named-me-malala***1/2 (out of five)

Oscar-winning doco maker Davis Guggenheim (An Inconvenient Truth) has made a revealing and sweet film about Malala Yousafzai and her dad Ziauddin, which can’t help but be thirty percent or so more resonant seen in the week of the Paris attacks. Malala was shot in the face by the Taliban as Paris has metaphorically been shot in the face by ISIS, and her response is brave and moving.

We all should remember the details of Malala’s attack, so the film gives us just enough material there. It is strongly focused on Malala’s work since healing, including visiting various countries to lend her support to various causes (including the kidnapped schoolgirls incident in Chibok, Nigeria). It contrasts her sudden worldwide fame and influence with charming scenes of her domestic life in Birmingham, UK, and reminds you consistently but never heavy-handedly just how awful the Taliban is.

But where the film glows is its depiction of Malala’s relationship with her Dad, Ziauddin, himself an inspiring, influential and brave activist. “He named her Malala” after an important folk heroine, and together, they are something to behold. Guggenheim’s film is not the kind that demands a big screen, but if you do see it at the cinema you might get what I got: that rare phenomenon of spontaneous audience applause at the film’s conclusion. If that’s because we were all thinking of Paris along with Malala, all the better.

Now Add Honey

Now-Add-Honey*** (out of five)

Robyn Butler’s screenplay for Now Add Honey is breezy and buoyant , managing to stay light ’n easy even as it deals with some pretty serious themes: really bad adultery, parental neglect, drug addiction, the over-sexualisation of young performers, and, most passionately and effectively, the ageing of the female body. The fact that all this is crammed into a high-concept comedy with a deceptively simple  mis – “Normal life implodes for a suburban family when their pop-star cousin comes to stay” – is very much to Butler’s credit.

Butler plays Caroline, who has to shelter her sixteen year-old international sensation niece Honey (Lucy Fry) when her sister and Honey’s mother Beth (Portia de Rossi) is arrested for drug importation at Melbourne Airport. They’re in from LA, where Honey has developed into a vacuous idiot; now Caroline’s nice normal family has to deal with Honey’s absurdity, while Honey has to deal with their banality.

At least, that’s the set-up. But where the script really shines is in all that messy stuff I mentioned earlier. Butler is unashamed and unafraid to use her very wrinkles to get a lot off her chest (which she is also extremely happy to disparage to make her point); as she takes pot-shots at the entertainment industry, she is very clear to point out that not only the audience but young entertainers themselves – even when being manipulated by their parents, agents, photographers, labels and the like – must also take accountability on the issue of sexual exploitation. She kicks goals on the other issues too, all the while keeping her comic balls in the air – something a lot of light comedies simply do not achieve, allowing themselves to be swallowed by sentimentality or self-importance.

Fry is excellent as Honey, pushing her character’s ludicrousness to the edge without ever taking it over into cringe-worthy parody. She’s accountable for at least half the film’s laughs (and that’s a conservative estimate). Lucy Durack is great as Katie, Caroline and Beth’s sister, although she looks more like one of their daughters. Philippa Coulthard makes a strong impression as Caroline’s sensible daughter Clare (and will get you humming a particular Cure song way after you’ve left the theatre). The only one who seems (very) uncomfortable in her role is de Rossi, although, to be fair, her character is cordoned off from the rest for the cast for most of the movie, which may account for her tonally mismatched performance. While the others are playing high comedy, she’s playing to the back row.

Wayne Hope’s direction is deceptively matter-of-fact; what he does – and doesn’t call attention to – is honour the script. The jokes are well-timed, the dramatic bits are never allowed to tilt the film’s delicate balance, and the pacing is sharp. The only huge blunders are the score, which is generic and annoying, and a seriously misjudged romantic subplot involving a superstar chef (Robbie Magasiva). Everything else on on-note.

The Lobster

thelobster-posters*** (out of five)

The Lobster – particularly the first, superior half – reminded me a lot of Milan Kundera, whom I read a lot of, devotedly, when I was in my early 20s. Yorgos Lanthimos’ slightly surreal, slightly dystopian, slightly funny and slightly profound fifth feature – his first in English – shares those qualities with Kundera (at least as I read him) and Rachel Weisz’s story-book narration – both objective and subjective simultaneously – reminded me of Kundera’s voice, which always had an omniscient quality while also being teasing and witty.

The characters in The Lobster all speak in a way that sounds translated, which may also contribute to my “Kundera effect”. Their delivery is deadpan, formal, relatively flat, and highly deliberate. It’s not just that they may indeed be speaking dialogue that has been translated from Lanthimos’ native Greek. The actors are following a strict line of direction here; they’re all on the same page, aspiring to a slightly mysterious goal, and together, along with the natural lighting (mostly available light was used in the shooting), the absurd elements of the script, and the constant use of highly brazen metaphor, a specific and unique universe is created.

The fist half of the film is set in a lush but chilly resort hotel (placed nowhere in particular but shot in Ireland) where David (a pudgy Colin Farrell), a recent divorcee, arrives to discover his destiny: life with a new partner or life as an animal of his choosing. In the rules of this world, he has forty-five days to find a soulmate within the resort – one who shares at least one major trait of his own – or undergo the transformation. He can choose any animal he wishes, and he chooses a lobster. It’s a good choice, according to the hotel manager (Olivia Colman, once again proving she can do no wrong); “most people choose to be a dog, which is why there are so many dogs”.

These scenes in the hotel are intriguing and often very funny (in a very dry way); Ben Whishaw, John C. Reilly, Jessica Barden, Ashley Jensen (from Extras) and in particular Lanthimos regular Angeliki Papoulia all do specific work here, adhering to the rules of Lanthimos’ game admirably. The second half, which expands the story significantly, is less engaging, and feels longer and more self-indulgent; it also can be a little baffling, which the first half, despite its overtones of surrealism and absurdity, never is.

Lanthimos is an acquired taste and shows no signs, as his career ascends, of altering his style to expand his audience (which is happening anyway, especially given his move into English and his use of movie stars). This is an accessible, fun and occasionally frustrating entry into his body of work.

Burnt

Burnt

** (out of five)

It is a truth almost universally acknowledged that a protagonist must be at least somehow likeable in order for an audience to spend a movie following them. It should also, by now, be a truth universally acknowledged that Bradley Cooper is an excellent actor (perhaps his three Oscar nominations in that category can move those who still consider him just a funny guy with a pretty face). To me it is obvious that Cooper likes to stretch himself, take risks, rise to a challenge. Perhaps that’s why he took the role of Adam Jones in Burnt, a character who must be the most unlikeable protagonist seen in a mainstream movie in many years. It is a challenge to sit through his appalling behaviour for the film’s ninety-seven minutes. Cooper is always believable, always compelling, but Adam makes you want to punch him in the face.

Adam is the world’s most celebrated chef, newly sober and getting back in the game after a self-imposed exile shucking exactly one million oysters in an oyster shack in New Orleans (a ludicrous dramatic conceit that sets the film’s tone of serious implausibility). His addictions are booze, drugs and sex, and they led him to personal and professional travesty. Now that his penance is complete, Adam seeks out his old colleague Tony (Daniel Brühl), who is Maitre D at the restaurant of his father’s London hotel, and tells him, point-blank, that he’s taking over the place. The road to his redemption is paved from there, but Adam heads along it in a continuing series of terrible behaviours that aren’t funny or clever, simply self-serving and contemptuous.

A love story, with Sienna Miller’s Helene, also a brilliant chef (but nowhere near as brilliant as Adam, who is essentially God to other chefs) is ludicrous, especially after a pivotal scene in which Adam abuses and humiliates her publicly and physically. Helene is a terribly written character, her motivations and actions completely subject to the script’s need to somehow keep our interest in Adam alive. Her behaviour is completely unbelievable.

Steven Knight wrote (my choice for) the best original screenplay of 2013, Locke, and some other fine films and television series including Eastern Promises and Peaky Blinders. But his script here is cookie-cutter and obvious, not to mention supremely formulaic. You can see it all coming a mile away. A lot of the dialogue is very, very “on the nose” (which is a serious disappointment from such a good writer), the characters are stereotypes throughout, and the whole thing feels very passé, especially in the wake of Jon Favreau’s now-beloved Chef (2014). The low point occurs when the film directly steals an iconic moment from Stanley Tucci’s Big Night (1996).

Yet somehow it’s not a complete disaster. All the actors are deeply committed, and manage to impress even through their one-dimensional character constraints (none more so than Matthew Rhys, playing a rival chef with – surprise! – arrogant, competitive anger issues). There are endless shots of food being prepared – more than any other foodie film I’ve seen – but the basic conflict between the rival chefs, centred on the preparation of food without flame (and instead, in plastic bags and with kitchen machinery that looks like it belongs in a laboratory) is dated, and feels it. Supposedly the script dates back to at least 2007; David Fincher was attached for a couple of years, with Keanu Reeves attached as Adam, before Fincher walked in 2010. Perhaps then it should have been left to wither and die; we’ve seen all this before, and much, much better. Great chefs may be horrible, arrogant, violent, self-centred, pretentious, egomaniacal dickheads, but that doesn’t mean we want to spend an hour and a half with one.

Legend

18967542350_58eaea0039_o-1****

If you don’t like your movies to celebrate criminals, avoid Legend, which treats London’s notorious Kray twins as if they were tragic heroes. Which should be pretty obvious by the title.

In yet another stroke of awesome acting, Tom Hardy plays both twins, Reggie and Ronnie, and he does it so well that you seriously do forget it’s the same dude (in Ron’s case, behind the glasses). Reggie is reasonable and smart and caring (was he really this reasonable and smart and caring?) while Ron is a sociopath. He’s also homosexual, paranoid, violent and by far the more interesting – indeed, fun – of the two.

The Krays’ reign (of terror) was at its height in the 1960s, and the film takes place mainly in the second half of that decade, not bothering with their early years (to its benefit, for my taste at least). The main narrative is constructed through the prism of Reggie’s relationship with young East End lass Frances (played very well by Emily Browning) with Ronnie’s release from a mental hospital and subsequent loose-cannon behaviour running alongside as a sort of “B” story. But you don’t come to a movie about the Krays for a love story or a treatise on mental illness, you come for the criminal activity, and that is ticked off episodically. You get all the highlights – the controversy with Lord Boothby (a perfect John Sessions), the alliance with the US Mob (represented London-side by Angelo Bruno and played snakily by Chazz Palminteri), the murders (although the relationship with Frank “The Mad Axeman” Mitchell is not represented, which is strange, as it’s so juicy) – and, thankfully, a bit of context in the form of the boys’ beloved mum and dad (Jane Wood and Jon McKenna). Ronnie’s homosexuality runs as a dominant theme throughout, and the creation of his own queer mini-gang within The Firm is an important and intriguing sideshow. Taron Egerton, David Thewlis, Christopher Eccleston, Tara Fitzgerald and Paul Bettany are all along for the jaunty ride.

Legend is written and directed by Brian Helgeland who wrote the Oscar-winning screenplay for LA Confidential, and it shares with that film a glossy sheen and sense of heightened style. Everything is very colourful and very bright and the tone is fun, fun fun. These Krays are funnier than they are scary, and Hardy’s dual performance, especially as Ronnie, is even more theatrical than his usual heightened style. If this version of the Krays’ story had been based on a graphic novel I would not have been surprised – it’s got that sort of tone. Instead, it’s based on John Pearson’s 1972 book The Profession of Violence: The Rise and Fall of the Kray Twins, which, in line with the resulting film, thoroughly glamorises the Krays’ lifestyles, and which was, indeed, the result of their wanting someone to write their “official autobiography”!

I have no qualms about gangster movies that glorify the gangsters – I’d have to sacrifice a significant chunk of Scorsese’s oevre if I did – and I didn’t have a problem with the breezy, happy-go-lucky tone of Legend. Indeed, I had a lot of fun throughout. But that does come at the price of any sort of real insight or emotional resonance, and the events towards the end of the film, which should have been kind of shattering, instead simply signalled to me that the story was winding up. Scorsese pitches us Glamour Gangsters too, but he always manages to include some heavy dark truths that ultimately keep us aware that we, the taxpayers, are on the right side of morality. Legend suggests we may actually be the mugs.

The Walk

thewalkposter*1/2

Don’t see The Walk. See Man On Wire instead. And if you’ve seen Man On Wire, see it again instead of seeing this completely redundant, ham-fisted, embarrassing (and boring!) re-telling of the same story. The Walk is so bad that it’s not only a stain on Man On Wire, it’s also detrimental to that perfect film, because some people may see The Walk at the expense of seeing Man On Wire, and that would just be a horrendous shame – a crime, really.

Man On Wire was a 2008 documentary by James Marsh based on Philippe Petit’s book To Reach The Clouds, about his wire-walking life and particularly and spectacularly his mind-blowing walk between New York’s World Trade Center Towers in 1974. It’s a stunningly realised, exorbitantly entertaining, thrilling, suspenseful, gorgeous and hilarious movie – as I say, a perfect telling of this incredible true story. Petit is a truly unique screen presence, and the things he did to make his walk happen – the planning, the recruitment of “accomplices”, the break-ins and stealth moves and ultimate triumph – were documented enough to grippingly accompany his own extremely vibrant talking head.

Thus, given that the story’s been perfectly told, The Walk, Robert Zemeckis’ dramatisation, is totally redundant – but it’s so much worse than that. The film is dreadful: overlong, didactic, simplistic, stultifying and very VERY VERY emphatic. Each scene is played at full volume in a cartoonish style that desperately underlines, bolds, screams and punches every single point and effect Zemeckis is trying to make, as though he’s trying to get through to a roomful of deaf babies. The dialogue is appalling, the music atrocious, and the performances… oy. Joseph Gordan Levitt has obviously spent a lot of time studying Petit, and he certainly captures his “Frenchness” and makes a good attempt at his spirit, but everything is so geared up, so amplified, that at times he’s as much playing Pepe Le Pew as the enigmatic Frenchman.

Zemeckis is often tonally linked to Spielberg, but Spielberg always knows how to dole out his Spielbergian moments, whereas Zemeckis here seems to want every single moment to be a Spielbergian moment. It’s tasteless, crass and annoying. By the time Petit was stepping onto the wire for what should have been a hugely cathartic sequence, I was wondering when I’d get a chance to clip my fingernails. Terrible.

MAD MAX: FURY ROAD

Mad-Max-Fury-Road-Banner-Charlize-Theron-Tom-Hardy ***** (out of five)

It was only about six or seven minutes into Mad Max: Fury Road that I knew that I’d be seeing it again in a matter of days. It was a couple of minutes after that when I realised that this film was going to look freaking spectacular in 3-D (I was watching it traditionally). I was already getting excited for my second viewing not ten minutes into my first. Fury Road is everything you want from a Mad Max film. It’s got the action, the cars and the characters; more importantly, in allegiance with the first three films – and especially The Road Warrior, the classic of the series – it’s got the weird vernacular, the Australian-ness, and the complete commitment to its own unique and totally insane universe. It may have cost a studio hundreds of millions of dollars, but it still feels home-grown, hand-made, and completely deviant.

George Miller, supposedly directing not from a script but from 3,500 storyboards he has created over the last decades with Brendan McCarthy (2000 AD), Mark Sexton and Peter Pound, has delivered one of the most kinetic, energetic, vibrant and thrilling action movies ever made. Like Gravity of a couple of years ago, and Avatar before that, Fury Road is a game changer, one of those films that has your jaw on the floor and your head spinning as you wonder just how in the world this thing possibly got made.

Don’t listen to the already often repeated cliché that it’s a two hour car chase. Like any good movie, Fury Road has its ebbs and flows, a three act structure, and a storyline to be excited by and characters to care about. There is emotion, there are gargantuan stakes, and a very moving emotional connection is made between Max (Tom Hardy) and Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron).

The plot is simple but elegant. Alone in the wasteland, Max is kidnapped and brought to the Citadel run by Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne, who played The Toecutter in the original Mad Max). Joe’s lead driver Furiosa is about to head off and make a fuel run. In these opening moments of the film we see a fully realised world that could only have been created by George Miller (and must have been driving him mad for the many years it took him to get them from his brain onto our screens). Every simple cutaway shot, every prop, every strange growl and weird squeak reveals a richly textured and highly specific cinematic universe.

Furiosa is meant to travel to Gas Town, but she has other plans. She’s stolen something very valuable to Joe and he’s pissed. A massive chase party is established and Max is used within it in a particularly ghoulish way. The stage is set, the chase is on, and 200 unique, incredible, mind-boggling vehicles careen across the desert.

The stunt work is astonishing: mind-blowing, game-changing, unbelievable. But there is so much more to the film. The depth of connection able to be achieved between the characters in the midst of all this mayhem is beautiful – as is the look of the film (the spectacular cinematography is by John Seale, who will be getting an Oscar nomination, mark my words). It has been graded (colour corrected) phenomenally; the reds of the desert and the blues of the sky; the cast of Charlize Theron’s face; the blacks and greys of the vehicles and the bad guys – it’s a little richer and more vibrant than real life; it’s a comic book, a fantasy. It looks brilliant.

Hardy’s Max is perfect. For the first half he’s not very proactive, but in the second he gets to make choices, offer solutions and figure himself out a little bit – and it works. His relationship with Theron’s Furiosa is not just surprising but touching. They’re two lost souls uniting in a form of heroism. Don’t worry – there’s nothing mushy; it’s much more Mad Max than that. Miller doesn’t do mushy, but he respects his characters and gives them hearts and souls, damaged as they may be.

Theron is fierce as you might expect, but also vulnerable and multi-faceted. Furiosa has an agenda and it’s all about women. The last act of the film gives us a panoply of older female characters with weapons, and using them. It’s fun, it’s kinda feminist, and it’s far more moving than any of the trailers could’ve possibly led you to guess.

Miller is up there with Kubrick, Spielberg, Cameron and Jackson as one of the great conceptualists working on the largest possible scale. This film is the work of a singular balls-to-the-wall visionary. About two thirds of the way through I thought, gosh, if Miller happened to pass away at any time during this film’s production process (he was 70 during principal photography) there is no-one who could’ve finished it – at least not like this. Essentially the script is his brain. He has claimed that there are two more ready to go. Let’s get rolling, people!

For dedicated adherents to the Book of Max, this film falls firmly into the canon. Tom Hardy is playing Max – not his son, not someone else called Max – and this film definitely takes place after the first three. It’s a continuation of  that universe, absolutely. There are many shout outs / Easter eggs / references / sly winks at the first three films – in fact so many that I could watch it a third time just to check up on all of those.

You know what? I will. Of its type this film is bloody perfect, and I’ll be seeing a lot of it.