Una

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*** (out of five)

David Harrower has expanded his internationally successful stage two-hander Blackbird for Benedict Andrews’ film version, now called Una: he gets our two lead characters occasionally out of the factory break room they have their devastating encounter in; he adds more chapters and more “story”; and – most critically – he and Andrews include a huge swathe of flashbacks to the events the characters spent the play recalling, which, if you’ve seen the play, may surprise or even shock you.

Blackbird, the play, is about the confrontation between 27 year old Una and 55 year old Ray; fifteen years ago, when she was 12 and he was 40, they had a three month sexual relationship that ended with his four year imprisonment. Now she has surprised him at his place of work, and the past is going to get dredged up for our somewhat lurid and dreadfully sad entertainment. These are shattered people with shattered lives and seeing each other cannot bring out much good.

Given a fine production, this is a brilliant play. I saw one, under Cate Blanchett’s direction at the Sydney Theatre Company, and it was a profound evening in the theatre. Harrower’s coup de theatre five minutes from the final curtain is jaw-dropping: he brings on an actual twelve year old girl, and suddenly the reality of the relationship we’ve just spent a couple of hours visualising hits home. We’ve been tricked into believing in a love affair, when all that’s really been on stage is the wreckage of crime.

In the film, we see multiple flashbacks of the “affair”, with twelve year old Ruby Stokes playing a young version of Rooney Mara’s older Una. This obviously jettisons the impact the play’s ending had, and the impact of the film as a whole, for the sequences between Ben Mendelsohn’s Ray and Stokes are never as disturbing as that moment allowed our brain to create. It’s a big literal choice that may very well have been the wrong one, and when Andrews tries the trick again, using standard cinematic language, it simply fails. We’re over being shocked about something we’ve already spent three acts being shocked about.

Indeed, considering Andrews made his theatrical reputation as a provocateur, it’s strange how safe Una is. The subject matter is intense, inherently distressing, taboo – but the film backs away from many edges which, frankly, I was expecting it to leap from with gusto. Perhaps I was bringing my own expectations about what a “Benedict Andrews movie” should be, having seen many “Benedict Andrews productions” on stage. The writing here is what pushes the envelope, not the direction.

If he’s unwilling to embrace his inner Gaspar Noé, at least Andrews, making his feature film debut, lets his Kubrick fantasies run wild. He utilises a very cold, formal shooting style and a stark deployment of sound (including Jed Kurzel’s superb creepy score) that evokes the chilly Kubrickian atmospheres of Ruben Östlund’s Force Majeure and the cool severity of Shane Carruth. Twice, Andrews deploys a wide-screen symmetrical image, with perhaps a tiny zoom in, to instigate dread, and, given we’ve grown up on The Shining, it works. This style places him in my wheelhouse, and certainly puts him on my director radar. The film is rather slight, but the talent on display carries depth.

In two very tricky roles, Mara and Mendelsohn are compelling and believable, but both performances feel somewhat effortful. Harrower’s dialogue sounds, to my ear and memory, often directly lifted from his stage script, but of course it’s been cut way down, and it feels like the actors feel the burden of filling in the missing lines with physical intensity, as though they’re clenching their guts as they talk. Andrews is famous for his brilliant stage metaphors – in his German production of Blackbird, Ray spilled water and then desperately tried to mop it up, a wonderful little microcosm of his life – but his film is very, very literal, surprisingly so, and unfortunately, to its detriment. Una is stylish and precise, painful and attractive, but it shows us enough to stop us imagining the worst.

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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.

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.