VENOM in 4DX

Film: * 1/2

Experience: * * *

Along with a cinema-full of other critics, I was hurled around, sprayed with water, and pelted with blasts of cool-air to accompany the Sony Pictures / Marvel Studios co-production Venom on a rainy morning last week. This physical experience, known as 4DX and newly introduced at (one assumes) significant expense to select Australian cinemas, and with a standard adult ticket price of $30, was for the most part good fun. Essentially, your seat rocks a lot to accompany significant action on the screen; it also sprays air-blasts (which are very effective accompanying bullets being shot at anyone on screen) either just brushing your ears or your ankles, and, when it rains or at other wet times, sprays water at you from hoses positioned in the seat in front of you. This last feature, uniquely, can be individually de-selected by a button on your arm-rest, but there’s no reason to turn it off: it’s one of the best bits.

The movement motion ascribed to your chair seeks to enhance your experience in one of two ways. The primary one is to try and “put you in the action” in action sequences; thus, when Tom Hardy, as Eddie Brock, a jovial San Francisco investigative reporter, rides a motor cycle under a truck, your seat simulates the angle of the bike and the jolt when it hits the road. Likewise, should Eddie run, jump and land, your seat will seem to propel you forward, lurch back, and then jostle with a thud. It’s very basic, mirror-the-action stuff, but effective in a roller-coasterish way.

Secondarily, but more intriguingly, occasionally your seat will echo a camera move (rather than the movements of the lead character or vehicle). Thus you’ll feel a director’s pan, tilt or dolly. While at first this seems just silly, it actually proves quite exciting when emphasising, for example, a move designed to peek around a door, over a counter, or otherwise to reveal hidden information. Your body, through your chair, is taking the same little physical risk as the camera move is tricking your brain into feeling. To watch, say, Crimes and Misdemeanours or Pickpocket this way could be quite the treat.

The air effect is super-effective. The guy next to me leant forward and felt around his ankles after they were strafed with bullets (air). I understood his vibe; it really feels like stuff’s happening down there. Likewise, when bullets whizz by your ear, it’s highly believable and a little freaky in the best way. And the water effects are terrific, especially, say, when a character or vehicle plows into a body of water, although watching, say, Blade Runner, Noah or Titanic might be deeply uncomfortable for everyone.

The audience I was with – and it must be said, we were an invited group to a first-feel and pretty primed – seemed to generally have a blast. The first few times the effects occur there was a lot of laughter, and occasionally throughout the film a particularly cleverly-conceived move or effect paid off with a giggle or a holler.

As for the film: it’s awful. Standard origin-story stuff: dude going about his business, which includes holding truth to power, gets infected with a thing, which first makes him ill; then he realizes he has new abilities; he plays with them; then he uses them to go after the Big Bad, and they have a Big Fight. Tom Hardy makes the film sit-throughable, but only just, and only because he plays what comedy there is for all it’s worth. “Venom” itself is a particularly ugly special effect and not in a good way; he / she / it is simply unpleasant to look at. The 4DX experience actually highlighted how lame the film’s non-action scenes were; whenever the chair stopped moving, the air stopped blowing and the water stopped spraying, you realised you were experiencing nothing at all.

DUNKIRK

 

****

Back in April, Their Finest depicted the British Ministry of Information backing a feature film about the civilian nautical craft evacuation of Dunkirk during World War Two. Now, Warner Brothers has spent a hundred and fifty million bucks on the same subject, and Britain gets a very expensive bonus slice of inspirational propaganda. Reserved, dignified, proud and brave, Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk is nothing if not very, very British.

I have to admit, I didn’t know about the civilian-aided evacuation effort, and the fact that it features in two prominent films this year might say something about our need for everyday heroes. It was an extraordinary event and it is given extraordinary technical respect here; this is a film where superlatives concerning the technique can’t help but get a bit heady. Utilising practical effects – real planes and boats from the era, including some boats that actually took part in the actual evacuation – Nolan has made a heartfelt connection with the past. It must have been something to launch those nearly hundred-year old vessels on a recreation of their proudest day. It must have given Nolan goosebumps…

…which is more than I can say Dunkirk did for me. I was blown away by its technical audacity, and I’m also in thrall to its intricate screenplay, which not only tells the film’s central story from three perspectives, in three different time-frames, but also allows for multiple interpretations of the same events, allowing for the subjectivity of memory. I learned a lot and was maybe a little inspired. But I cannot say I was moved. The human beings in the film function much as the boats and planes do; they are pieces to be shifted around on Nolan’s magnificent (IMAX!) canvas rather than memorable individuals. There are two exceptions: Mark Rylance’s stoic pleasure-boat captain makes a dignified impression, and Tom Hardy’s fighter pilot is fully realised, despite the actor’s face being covered in a massive pilot’s mask.

For the rest, though, the grunt soldiers who actually bear the story’s spine – I found them interchangeable to the point that I didn’t actually realise that there are three young leads. They’re all “fresh faces” – their names are Fionn Whitehead, Aneurin Barnard and Harry Styles (he of One Direction) – and they didn’t land an impression on me. For all I could really tell, what happened to each of them happened to a bunch of them – they were simply more and more of the 400,000 soldiers on the beach, rather than three we were meant to care about. Their anonymity gave them universality while undercutting their emotional weight.

The film is full peril, danger and death, but I can’t recall a single drop of blood. Unlike every big-budget war film since Saving Private Ryan, it doesn’t stylistically crib Saving Private Ryan. The carnage is portrayed less graphically and eschews the “bullet zip” and sped-up camera effect that  made Ryan’s scenes so devastating. It’s a little more old-school, a little more… British.

I appreciated the supreme virtuosity of the film, but I wasn’t really needing it in my life (except as an incredibly staged history lesson). While bravery is always a noble theme, nothing about Dunkirk speaks to the here and now. It’s timeless, classical filmmaking on a massive, modern scale, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Or, daresay I, ‘tis nothing to be sneezed at.

A fun observation: Kenneth Branagh, as the highest-ranked officer on the beach, must have the tightest performance area of any actor in a big epic since the naval commanders on the bridge of Tora Tora Tora! Stationed at the end of the “mole”, Dunkirk’s long pier, Branagh occasionally takes a step over here, and, later… perhaps a step back. Cuppa tea, anyone?

mark-rylance-in-dunkirk-2017

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The Revenant

be240428821047.55d3fa67d63ca**** (out of five)

Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s follow-up to his Best Picture Oscar winner Birdman is a visually extraordinary while being dour, bleak, slow at times, and not really about very much. Essentially, it’s a big fat art house western, with an incredibly simple storyline. It is almost entirely a visual picture, but the visuals are goddamn amazing.

They’re shot in Canada mostly, Montana a little, and Argentina for the final sequence, by Emmanuel Lubezki, who will make Oscar history when he wins his third consecutive gong for Best Cinematography. He frames these majestic, awe-inspiring landscapes impeccably – breathtakingly – but he also uses handheld and Steadicam in revolutionary ways. Faces are boldly proportioned, filling half the huge frame (he used a large-format digital camera with tight lenses, from 12-21mm); points of view shift from objective to subjective mid-shot; and, although nothing like those in Birdman, there are some pretty wild long takes. And he shot the whole thing in natural light, and almost entirely in “magic hour”, the hour and a half before sunset (the cast and crew would rehearse all day and then shoot like crazy in the late afternoon). Ultimately, the film stands as a monument to both classical and radical cinematography, and Lubezki is a genius of his craft.

Tom Hardy and Leonardo DiCaprio play Fitzgerald and Glass, two fur trappers working for a company represented by Captain Henry (Domhnall Gleeson). When Glass is injured (wait’ll you see how he gets injured!) his incapacitation poses a problem for the group, and the resolution of this quandary sets the stage for a story of survival and revenge.

Hardy, who has had one hell of a year, with this, Fury Road, and his astonishing turn as twins in Legend, is fantastic, echoing Klaus Kinski in Aguirre, Wrath of God. Gleeson is also excellent – the best I’ve seen him. Weirdly, DiCaprio, who is considered a shoo-in to win the Best Actor Oscar, is the least engaging. His Glass grunts and shuffles and moans and crawls and bleeds and whimpers and shudders a lot, but he barely speaks, and when he does it’s in a coarse, unengaging whisper. He’s a bit of a cypher in the centre of more interesting stuff. The amount of suffering he’s put through is almost comical at times in its relentlessness – just when you think he’s doing okay, into the rapids he goes! He’s also lumbered with visions and flashbacks involving native Americans that I simply didn’t buy. I’m one of those people who still find his boyish looks distracting, and here, a major plot element is that he’s the father of a teenage son, which didn’t gel for me.

Mad Max: Fury Road is still the more audacious, entertaining and simply brilliant film in this year’s Oscar race, but there’s no denying The Revenant’s boldness. If it had been a little tighter – and perhaps had a bit more dramatic weight to go along with its visual virtuosity – it could have been a classic.

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.

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.