SURVIVOR.* Dead in the water


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PIERCE BROSNAN NEVER quite convinced as Bond, and now in “Survivor”, a dumbly derivative action thriller from James McTeigue (he of those other great classics, “The Raven”, “Ninja Assasin” and “V for Vendetta”), Brosnan brings his trademark action-man face (pursed lips) to signify determination. Alas, he’s as unconvincing as a hit man on the wrong side of the law as he was on the right side of it. Which makes him fit right in. McTeigue has given us a movie of breathless pace and dramatic explosions, which, were it not for Pierce’s pursed lips, could easily pass for a pastiche. It’s as though he’s made a real effort to ensure that nothing and no one in the movie even remotely convinces.

The story centers around Kate Abbott (Milla Jovovich), a State Department employee posted to the US Embassy in London and charged with stopping terrorists getting into the US. Unlike most of the others around her, she has a keen nose for subterfuge and hidden plots. This not only makes her unpopular, but after various close colleagues wind up dead, she becomes a terrorist suspect.

Kate must elude the CIA, MI5 and a cabal of terrorists, led by the Watchmaker (Brosnan) bent on blowing up the Times Square ball in New York on New Year’s Eve. Brosnan’s character (Nash) when he isn’t blowing up people or stabbing them in the ears with sharp objects, is a bespoke watchmaker. This little fact has absolutely nothing to do with the plot, but writer Philip Shelby (who doesn’t have much to his credit) seemed to have thought it an interesting way of filling out Nash’s character.

Or maybe it’s a damnably clever play on the issue of time…since Abbott must fake various ID’s, steal into the heavily armed US Embassy to forge a passport and board a flight to New York, despite being on every news report as a dangerous wanted criminal…to get there IN TIME. In time to stop the Watchmaker. Every second counts.

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Will she make it? Will she outfox the dastardly Watchmaker? Will she – a misunderstood, framed employee of incompetent US officials – save millions of lives? I’m sure you wouldn’t want me to give away the nerve-ending shocker.

Fortunately for these millions, nothing can possibly stop Abbott. She’s the ultimate survivor. She’s blown up, battered by exploding doors, shot at, beaten up, slammed against walls, and thrown across rooms. But she just ain’t stoppable.

This would be a touch unconvincing but for a few factors which we discerning movie-goers are meant to cotton on to:

She may look like some employee called Abbott. But she’s after all Milla Jovovich, aka Alice, from Resident Evil. Nothing stops Alice. Milla doesn’t even pretend to alter her expression throughout the movie. Really there’s not enough time to do that. She simply has to take the various beatings and, like Alice keep running to outfox her new resident evil.

Abbott/Alice/Milla is also up against the dumbest man in MI5, Paul. Paul is James D’Arcy, the sleazy bad guy from “Broadchurch”. He tries hard, runs around a lot as well, but really is no match for Resident Evil

McTeigue throws in a passel of other well-knowns to add some gloss of credibility to this ‘greatest hits of other thrillers’ movie. There’s the stern, uncompromising, by the book boss (Angela Bassett), the tough but tender hearted friend (Dylan McDermott) and the perennial brusque older man (Robert Forster)

I’m sure it was a good pay-out for them all.

And I’m sure the investors will recoup the $20M it cost to make…though, up against “Tomorrowland”, “Mad Max”, “San Andreas” and “Pitch Perfect 2”, it’s going to be a tough road to climb.

And I’m sure we’re all stressed out by this.

 

TOMORROWLAND** …never comes


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THE QUESTION POSED by “Tomorrowland” is bigger and more interesting than this moderately pleasant, occasionally charming and instantly forgettable George Clooney movie. Back then, in 1964, when New York hosted the World’s Fair, and when the movie begins, there was a boundless excitement about discovery. From the moment the Russians launched Sputnik, the race for space was on. It’s as though our collective desires to put the World War and Korea behind us, turned our eyes upward toward the stars.

We saw the growth of NASA, the emergence of the Apollo program, even the Concorde… and the need to boldly go where no one had gone before. Tomorrow would be a place of infinite possibilities. Tomorrowland, Walt Disney’s visionary concept back then channeled the zeitgeist of an expansionist, optimistic humanity.

So what happened?

What turned governments insular, xenophobic and small-minded? When did we stop dreaming? Why did yesterday’s Tomorrowland become today’s dystopia? When did we cynically accept that it was OK to destroy the world so that the big corporations could keep on making more money? “Tomorrowland” offers some fuzzy explanations about the corrupting influence of non-stop broadcasts of disaster news (by The all-powerful Nix – Hugh Laurie) leading to a death of hope. Or something.

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Clooney is Frank Walker who we first meet as a grumpy, cynical man (in a performance that’s an awkward mishmash of the curmudgeonly Harrison Ford and the kooky Clooney of “Men Who Stare at Goats”). He’s the embodiment of hope’s death.

But it wasn’t always thus. Once he was an eager kid (Thomas Robertson) with a bright idea for a human jet pack. His eagerness and spirit of adventure attracted the attention of an android from the future, Athena (Raffey Cassidy from “Mr. Selfridge” and “Snow White and the Huntsman” and whose cool, unnerving presence absolutely steals the show). Raffey-Cassidy

She (it?), using the magic of a special pin, transported him there. This is the same type of pin that’s planted by Athena and used, once again, to transport another bright-eyed kid with a spirit of adventure and undaunted optimism, Casey Newton (Britt Robertson as a wannabe Jennifer Lawrence).

Yup. Optimism. That’s all you need.

The up-beat Casey meets the down-beat Frank and, as they seek to escape pessimism and some evil grinning androids from the future, an OK adventure ensues. Brad Bird, the director tries to deliver a brisk, efficient movie that still feels longer than it is; and is bedeviled by a confusion of tone. At times, “Tomorrowland” has the jaunty tongue in cheek fun of “Men in Black”; at times it’s a dreary “All Ages”, Disney approved kids film; at times it headlines A VERY SERIOUS MESSAGE; on no occasion do the high jinks adventure pose any sense of real threat or danger.

The actors themselves seem trapped by these tonal fluctuations. Clooney here is at his worst, with an exaggerated, strained performance that reminds you of the old warning to never act with either kids or dogs. He should mandate this in all his future contracts. Hugh Laurie is simply House without the limp and the kids veer from cute (Thomas Robertson) to cloying (Pierce Gagnon, the cute android from “Extant”).

The production design from Scott Chambliss (“Star Trek Into Darkness”, “Cowboys and Aliens”, Mission Impossible III” ) is strong; the world of the future is nicely realised. It’s the writing, from a story by the talented Damon Lindelof (“World War Z” + 161 episodes of “Lost”) that, unlike the story idea, never quite lifts off.

“Tomorrowland” opened the week after “Mad Max, Fury Road”. And based on these two versions of the future, it’s Mayhem and Disaster 1: Happy Endings: 0

MAD MAX: FURY ROAD. Crazy. Manic. Spectacular


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MAD MAX, FURY Road is a visual masterpiece; it’s simply spectacular.

In a brown sand-drowned, post-apocalyptic, lifeless world, wild-eyed, heavily armed feral hordes, fed on breast milk and blood, drive vast surreal machines to the sound of thumping drums and heavy metal, in search of enemies of the state. The vast wasteland they all inhabit is a world that looks like the crazed spawn of Julie Tamor and Peter Jackson after a night of bad acid and wild delirium.

Every now and again, a movie comes along that puts a strong visual stamp, an imaginative leap, that helps stake out territory that will be the roadmap for generations of future imitators. Ridley Scott’s Alien and Blade Runner movies did this, as did Spielberg’s CGI leap forward with “Jurassic Park”, the slo-mo swirling bullet trails of “The Matrix”, Peter Jackson’s fantastic take on “The Lord of the Rings”, Ang Li’s “Life of Pi” etc.

George Miller (whose last major movies, would you believe, were “Happy Feet Two” and “Babe: Pig in the City”; he also did the original “Mad Max” back in 1979) has brought us a visual confection whose ‘real-ness’ makes the usual super-hero action flix look silly and artificial. In particular the recent “Avengers; Age of Ultron” really does seem to be little more than an animated, and respectful comic book when compared with this hyped up, adrenalin junkie extravaganza. Miller manages to convey the impression that all the action, all the exploding vehicles, all the whirling flying bodies is real; there’s no trace of the falseness you get from Marvel’s invincible super-heroes.

In his stoned dream of the future, there are three basic tribes: the dense faceless half starved, water-deprived masses (which sounds like LA by next month), a ruling class of whacko zombie-like blood-lusting men; and the women-folk: now reduced to the role of bovine milk suppliers or breeders for the men. Into this we find Max Rockatansky (Tom Hardy) who has just been chased down, captured and, lashed like a hood ornament to the front of one of the hundreds of war machines that bounce up and down the sandy dunes of the future, has become a blood-donor slave. And somewhere, out there, veering off her prescribed course is Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron), a close cropped, one-armed division leader leading a small convoy of rebels who have recently rescued a group of (attractive, scantily clad breeders) and is speeding away in search of “the Green Place” (Gatsby’s “green light”?).

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What little story there is concerns the alignment of Furiosa with Max and their explosive flight away from the evil masked despot, Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne). Joe throws everything at them: various booby traps, exploding spears wielded by men on swaying poles, machine guns, kamakazi armoured rigs that explode on contact, in a relentless choreography of operatic death and destruction that never dies down for two heart racing hours. They’re driven on by what seems to be a troupe of Japanese drummers led by a prancing, hyperventilating, heavily amped guitarist, the Doof Warrior (one iOTA, an Australian singer/songwriter who made his name as Hedwig, he/she of the Agry inch).

It isn’t just Max that’s mad; it’s the whole damned lot of them, starting with Miller and his production wizards: Colin Gibson (“Babe”), production designer, John Seale (“Cold Mountain”, “The Tourist”), cinematographer, Shira Hockman (“Defiance”, “Hotel Rwanda”) and Jacinta Leong (“The Matrix”, “Star Wards, Episode III”) art directors, and Jenny Beavan (“The King’s Speech” and “Sherlock Homes”), costume designer.

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And amidst all this kinetic overstimulation rises Charlize’s performance. As Imperator Furiosa, her eyes shine through a visage mainly smeared with oil slick and sand. She’s by turns fearlessly badass without becoming a cartoon and mournful without becoming maudlin. In all the noise and mayhem, she’s often a presence of stoic calm. Frankly if you wanted to put your trust in someone to rescue you, you’d give it to her well ahead of rough tough Mad Max.

This is probably the most feminist movie around

As Max, Tom Hardy is a muscled, macho, taciturn fighting machine with demons of the past he’s trying to face down. This is of course his movie but he pales into the background every time Chalize appears on the screen (mind you, for me, pretty much everyone pales into the background when Charlize appears on any screen). And as Miller plans (as he’s probably doing even now) his sequel to this world of madness and mania, let’s hope the Imperator Furiosa is still part of the action.

FORCE MAJEURE*** Apres Cowardice


force_majeure1_small_c2a9fredrik20wenzel-0-800-0-450-crop2 IN FORCE MAJEURE, Swedish director Ruben Ostlund’s unsettling new movie, an ideal Swedish family, Tomas (Johannes Kuhnke from “Wallender”), Ebba (beautiful Lisa Loven Kongsli) and their two lovely kids, are in the French Alps on a brief skiing holiday. He’s been working too hard and needs to take a break…needs to reconnect with the family. They’re staying at an expensive (if cold looking) resort and as they prepare for another day of family skiing, they repair to breakfast on the resort’s picturesque verandah. Force-Majeure-family-300x200

The verandah overlooks the rugged undulations of the towering snow-iced Alps; that morning, the sky is an unblemished blue and the waiter service tinkles along with understated efficiency. Somewhere in the distance a boom is heard. Nothing unexpected. This is simply the resort managing a controlled avalanche, which we see happening way out, in the out of focus distance. But then the avalanche comes closer and closer. The susurration of breakfast chatter becomes drowned out by the deep roars of what is now a threatening wall of fast moving snow. Tomas, the dad, keeps trying to reassure his increasingly terrified children that all is under control. But as the snow powers it way toward them, obliterating both the sky and decorum, panic sets in and all is chaos.

Ebba grabs her kids and hunkers down protectively under the table. Tomas grabs his cell phone and flees like a bat out of hell.

She has protected her kids. As is expected of her.

He has run away.

And thereby hangs a tale.

Tomas’ instinct – to save his own hide – is a violation of everything that’s expected of a parent, a husband and, critically, a man. In this single act of reflexive unthinking self-centeredness, Tomas becomes – to wife, children and even to himself – not the man they thought he was…or perhaps not the man they thought he should have been. The unspoken bond – of familiarity – that holds families and marriages together has, in an instant, been snapped.

To wife Ebba, her husband’s act is a violation of ‘what’s expected’. To her, his instinctive rush to self-preservation recasts him as a coward, a failed dad, and,even as she coyly flaunts her off-limits nudity at him, the archetypal emasculated man. It’s a self-image that he himself buys in to, and is weighed under by.

The force majeure of the title is more than the dark, brooding icy skies that have now replaced the scenic blueness of the Alps, it’s the force of social construct. It’s the force that governs more than how we behave, it governs our public sense of who we are and what passes for character.

But the deeper, and perhaps more potent force majeure is that animal instinct unconstrained by social niceties, by “what’s expected” and which bookmarks the movie – him at the beginning and an equally instinctive act of self-preservation by Ebba at the end.

The story explores this rich dichotomy between instinctive and learned behavior, between the private world (that has now been violated) and the public world meant to be shared; between what we really are and who we seem to be. The point is brilliantly illustrated when a mysterious fellow guest confesses to Ebba that, though a married mother of two (like Ebba) she has an open relationship with her husband. Both partners feel free to play around. Ebba is shocked that anyone can so openly give in to and harmonize her instinctive, animal, sexual self with her social, maternal self.

Director Ostlund suggests that most of us simply avoid or run away from these darker existential questions raised by the force of our instinctive ids. Unless confronted it will, at some stage, unmask us all.

“Force Majeure” marvelously takes what is on the surface the small domestic drama of a man coming to terms with himself and his marriage (and not really liking what he sees) and turns it into a brooding, always unsettling examination of human nature.

Ostlund’s sound design juxtaposes the jarring intrusion of Vivaldi’s “Summer concerto” (ironically) with the subtler everyday sounds of ski lifts, skis falling over etc. to create a mood of pending disaster. His visuals cut away, sometimes unexpectedly, from the flow of the story to odd vignettes, such as one of male rowdiness (a drunken stag party filled with vomiting half naked male revelers) and always of the hills, the snow, slow moving ice machines, the near invisible pathways of the ski lifts. movie-movie-review-film-film-review-force-majeure-11

It may be a skiing holiday, but in Ostlund’s hands, it’s nearer to Kurtz’ curse: “the horror, the horror”

FORCE MAJEURE: Dir and writer: Ruben Ostlund. with Johannes Kuhnke, Lisa Loven Kongsli; Cinematographer: Fredrik Wenzel