Sunday, 21 December 2014

Stranger danger. Keep your eyes down, there's some sort of bear.

Paddington
(2014)

(SPOILERS) There’s good reason to be surprised at the pedigree of Paddington. Aardman aside, British animations are often less than auspicious, and the history of CGI-character-led live action adaptations of children’s favourites have generally met with tepid results (Yogi Bear, Scooby Doo). Nothing in the pre-release material, not least the generically cute design of Paddington himself, led me to think any differently. Then there was the loss of Colin Firth as the titular bear. If even Firth was quitting surely it must stink? And yet Paddington is a hugely enjoyable family movie, stylishly made, witty, sweet without being mawkish, and updated without offending defenders of the novels. It also manages to be very English, in a way that plays on Hollywood concepts of Englishness but also because it actually is.


Firth left the project because Paddington “does not have the voice of a very handsome older man, who has the most beautiful voice on the planet”. As someone used to Michael Horden’s mature tones, it took a while to get used to the wispy Ben Wishaw’s youthful bear, as much as the endearing stop-motion Paddington of the BBC TV version had a sense of character and poise this fully mobile, gymnastic type lacks. That aside, however, this Paddington comes complete with duffle coat, marmalade-sandwich concealing hat, brief case, and an unerring politeness that transcends his ability to make a hash of things (which all turn out fine in the end).


Director Paul King co-wrote the screenplay with Hamish McColl (of Mr Bean’s Holiday and Johnny English Reborn; if not for those, I might have said it gives hope for McColl’s Dad’s Army script but Emma Thompson also did a pass on this). King was responsible for the inspired visual disturbia of The Mighty Boosh, which goes a long way to explain the inventiveness on display here. The script shows significant fidelity to the books, albeit with the winning embellishment of explorer Montgomery Clyde (Tim Downie, wonderfully British Empire) discovering the bears and teaching them English.


This sequence, playing as sepia newsreel footage, is chock full of sight gags (one of which includes mild innuendo over which the BBFC twisted its knickers) and introduces us to Aunt Lucy and Uncle Pastuzo (Imelda Staunton and Michael Gambon). No kid’s movie is complete without a slice of tragedy, and it’s after this that Paddington is packed off to England. He arrives, eventually, at the station that lends him his name, where the kindly Browns discover, and christen. They also take him in, at their home of 32 Winsor Gardens, Notting Hill. Of course, this all needs a skullduggerous plot to hinge his mishaps on, so a nefarious taxidermist (Nicole Kidman’s Millicent) is bent on stuffing him to boot.


I say they welcome him. Mrs (Mary) Brown is instrumental in whisking Paddington home, wearing nowt but a hat and luggage tag (that’s Paddington, not Mrs Brown). Mr (Henry) Brown is a safety-obsessed sourpuss who wants the bear to move on at the first opportunity. Sally Hawkins is utterly beguiling as the dappy hippy mum, and Hugh Bonneville’s grumpy boots dad equally and oppositely matches her. 


I don’t really know Bonneville’s work (I studiously avoid Downton Abbey), but his hugely game performance takes in a carefree pre-parent persona and a hilarious manifestation as a cleaning lady (who then proceeds to flirt with a lusty security guard – BBFC ahoy!) There’s an odd moment at the end where, having stood firm in defence of Paddington as a member of the family, dad bitches out and leaves him to the mercy of Millicent, but generally he turns out to be a good sort (his reference to Paddington’s “worrying marmalade habit” is up there with Dougal’s resistance to his sugar lump addiction in Dougal and the Blue Cat).


Before long Paddington is getting up to unintended mischief, flooding the bathroom (again, King’s visual panache is in full effect), using toothbrushes as ear syringes (a deliriously bloik-worthy sequence that has the expectedly bleugh-gusting pay-off) and pursuing a pickpocket, The latter chase becomes ever-more unhinged, as Paddington accumulates various items that cross his path (a skateboard, a policeman’s hat, a whistle), before launching skywards, Mary Poppins-like, with an open umbrella. 


Other inventive sequences see him embroiled in sellotape while Millicent does a Tom Cruise in Mission: Impossible to bearnap him (the theme tune is used for a later scene of Paddington derring-do). An extended set piece in the Geographer’s Society is a Gilliam-esque maze of postage tubes and BBC Micros, where one misplaced marmalade baguette can gum up the entire works.


Elsewhere King gives us a gaggle of marmalade-fixated pigeons, a dollhouse presentation of the Brown’s own house, Paddington giving his “hard stare”, an encounter with an escalator, an interlude with a Beefeater’s TARDIS-like hat (this when Paddington believes he is no longer welcome at the Brown’s and is seeking out the Clyde), and a calypso band performing on any given street corner. The creativity here puts most family movies to shame, particularly in its easy idiosyncrasy.


Of the remaining performers, Madeleine Harris and Samuel Joslin manage not to be the annoying kids, and King wisely doesn’t turn this into a picture that is all about their relationship with the bear. Julie Walters is rather tiresome, wheeling out her old woman Walters routine as Mrs Bird. It’s one we’ve seen a million times before (Walters was much better in The Harry Hill Movie). 


Peter Capaldi plays neighbour Mr Curry as a seedy-eyed masturbator (as Doctor Who actors showing a different side go, it compares to Patrick Troughton in that Morse episode) who is, most amusingly, instantly smitten with “honeypot” Millicent.


It’s Kidman who is the real weak link in this picture, preventing it from climbing to the heights of instant classic. We’ve seen before that she has no facility for comedy (The Stepford Wives). Bless her for giving her kids something age-appropriate to see, but mum’s comic timing will not be visible. Glenn Close was the kind of big performance needed (or, better still, Miranda Richardson). Kidman fully embraces an array of tight costumes but is otherwise utterly unmemorable.


Paddington is, as I’m sure Michael Bond would agree of his source material, a consummately white middle class depiction of Englishness. And yet it’s impossible to miss the theme of inclusiveness and acceptance of (illegal) immigrants running through the picture, set against London’s cultural melting pot and more particularly that of Notting Hill. The movie will probably do more for a moderate position – certainly for young malleable minds –  than any heated debate.


Paddington will doubtless earn sequels irrespective of its Stateside performance. Yes, the PG rating is ridiculous (illustrated by the BBFC subsequently moderating its own guidance), but it’s done nothing to quell the universality of its appeal. It isn’t perfect, and there’s definite room for improvement next time out (but one actually gets the impression they will improve things rather than stir-and-repeat), but this is a genuinely smart family movie, and an endearingly goofy one that never speaks down to its target audience and doesn’t fall back on shameless cutesiness.




Jesus has a horse in heaven.

Heaven is for Real
(2014)

(SPOILERS) It would be churlish to complain about a Christian movie selling Jesus, something Heaven is for Real (fo’ sho’; Heaven is 4 Real might have been a better title) has at the forefront of its mind. And critiquing its take on Near Death Experiences (“NDEs”), from a rationalist/atheist perspective, would be talking to the hand, as it would be for any who who avow a spiritual dimension to an subject that some would reduce to mere brain chemistry (what’s surprising is that an atheist who isn’t a Dawkins-type zealot would waste their time setting it straight at all). The real (4 real) question, rather than taking issue with its faith-based partiality, is whether Randall Wallace has made a decent movie.  On that front it’s distinctly underwhelming, fudging together a series of not-all-that-convincing conflicts and trials to sell an affirmative view of the Christian afterlife (well, the glass half-full side of that afterlife).


Based on a True Story, announce the opening titles, and it should be noted that, like baseball movies and a good proportion of their comedies, there is little interest in Christianity-based movies that aren’t also Biblical epics/period pieces outside of America. It deserves some consideration, as Heaven is for Real earned a significant 90% of its gross at home (big movies are moving ever more towards the 70% internationally). It was a significant sized summer sleeper hit, particularly given its modest budget, and identified that there’s a ripe believer-based audience out there that won’t just turn out for Narnia or Mel’s The Sadomasochism of the Christ. The unashamedly positive advertising probably broadened its appeal too, towards the Bruce Joel Rubin/Ghost crowd. This is where the selling Jesus comes in, apart from the mere fact of making the movie based on Todd Burjo and Lynn Vincent’s book.


It’s a case of attempting to preach to the unconverted (although I think it’s profoundly mistaken if Wallace thinks this particular topic will sway anyone) as apparently the experiences of Todd’s son Colton testified to the family’s Biblical beliefs in a much more rigid manner. Rather than merely coming away with benign sunshine and moonbeams, the youngster received confirmation of the existence of hell, Old Nick, and the end times (so that would be five horses up/down there in all; Colton also encountered a rainbow-coloured horse, which I can only guess derives from one of the non-canonical gospels). But that isn’t the kind of unfiltered starkness you want to expose moviegoers to, unless you’re intent on milking the fears of The Exorcist-esque lapsed Catholics.


The conflicts are also manufactured, quite reasonably, as otherwise Randall Wallace would have little in the way of a movie (he has little-enough even with a few stakes involved). Todd (Greg Kinnear) is a down-on-his-financial-luck pastor whose son is admitted to hospital with a ruptured appendix. It’s touch-and-go for a while, and Todd later learns that while undergoing surgery Colton was transported to heaven where he saw the great grandfather he’s never met (or seen, it seems), and Jesus (we don’t see the horse, alas) and the sister he knew nothing of, who died when his mother Sonja (Kelly Reilly) miscarried. Todd is not a little rocked by this, not knowing how to categorise his son’s experience. This befuddlement feeds into his ministry, and before long the church board is asking questions about his pastoral suitability (townsfolk even make jokes at his expense; oh, the travails!)


It seems the real Todd never had the crisis of faith provoked by Colton’s revelations, and never came into conflict with the church board. Since the two points interweave, that makes a lot of sense. While watching the picture I was surprised that Todd should react in a manner so askance, wondering at his wonder, and become so obsessive over whether his son’s experience was (4) real. The more likely reaction from a believer would have been to accept it as an unquestionable message from God (much in the way that less palatable bits of The Bible are inelegantly skipped). 


The issues with the church board are easier to swallow (particularly since the marvellous Margo Martindale and Thomas Hayden Church – cast on the strength of his surname - sit on it), since even broad-brush, keep-it-light (or especially?) weekend churchgoers found here are wont to be possessive of their own private interpretation of doctrine (Martindale is also given a caveat of grieving for the loss of her own son – don’t worry though, Margo, you’ll get your vision in time!)


As such, the picture presents a bit of a muddle in its attempts to appeal to the broadest possible audience base. The bits of Colton’s vision we do see include angels with wings (while sniffing its nose at some cherub types being unrealistic to the scriptures!) and a vision of Christ who matches the one painted by a Lithuanian Christian NDE girl (the most alarming aspect of this is not that he resembles your common-or-garden Jesus picture of the past few centuries, but that he has a particular similarity to a bearded Barry Manilow).


The Burjos are most definitely not your staid, starchy, Christians either. They have sex, for starters, which is quite shocking. And, if randy sex talk is out, there’s the kind of mild innuendo that any pastor who has seen Nicolas Roeg’s Puffball would muster towards Kelly Reilly. Todd is a fantastic guy who teaches wrestling, gets paid in carpet and does the volunteer fireman thing. And he plays baseball (he breaks his leg during this; one of the disappointing aspects of the movie is that he doesn’t discuss the trials of faith brought by God, establishing that he is a New Testament Christian with no awareness of the book of Job).


Todd also suffers from hilarious kidney stones (permissible toilet humour there) and gets into sing-a-longs of songs sung by well-known heterosexual Christian Freddie Mercury (We Will Rock You). Which is to say, he practices a particularly toothless, inclusive and inoffensive form of Christianity and it’s an attitude that spreads throughout the picture as a whole. It’s a “nice” movie, and it lacks any balls at all. The worst one can say about it is that the Burpos clearly practice corporal punishment and are all for their children beating up kids who verbally abuse them. But I’m sure neither of those things are a barrier to passing through the Pearly Gates on a rainbow-coloured horse.


The details that Colton could not possibly know are used to leverage the “This really happened” argument (aware of what his father and mother are doing while he is under the knife, as well as the appearances and fates of family members), but none of this conflicts with more general non-denominational NDE experiences. Unsurprisingly, Wallace opts not to explore this path, as it would create a universal theme rather than a Jesus-based one. 


The subject is broached briefly when Colton goes to see a psychologist (Nancy Sorel), who offers a rational explanation for the phenomenon (“No, he didn’t die” proclaims Todd, as if that is the deciding factor in such experiences). Apart from the sequence being another of the “Why would Todd, a pastor, do this?” (Sorel’s Dr Slater pretty much asks him), it is crudely positioned to present Slater as the one who clearly doesn’t believe for the most primary of reasons; she lost her husband, so God is dead to her. If only the poor woman had faith! It’s thin, given the crisis Todd is going through. As Sonja says, “Why cant it just be a mystery?


Wallace’s movie career has been chequered, including historically contentious fare Braveheart, Pearl Harbor and We Were Soldiers; Heaven is for Real confirms the effect of a lack of Mad Mel’s fiery faith on a Christian movie, particularly in trying to fashion a story when there is none. Kinnear is actually very good, a believably earnest pastor type with an informal but authoritative pulpit style. Connor Corum strikes out as Colton; smiling beatifically cannot make up for his lack of acting chops. The visions of heaven, from the comfort of the local church, are all shafts of light and choirs (and angel wings); this is not the most illustrious of cinematographer Dean Semler’s work.



I do wonder if it’s possible to make this kind of sincerity palatable? At very least, it requires artfulness well beyond Wallace’s reach. To preach without provoking resentment in the audience is a difficult nut to crack. Given the liberties taken with the source material, it might have been more effective (more dramatic, certainly) to tell this as a non-believer transformed, but that would defeat Wallace’s desire to present this as truth. The trouble is, it’s a truth that fails to convince as a uniquely divine message (why the Christian NDE as opposed to any other individual’s?). And it’s relayed via someone who should surely not falter in the face of a recognised phenomenon; certainly, in no way should it challenge his beliefs. Well, maybe that rainbow horse is a poser.



Wednesday, 17 December 2014

You’ve won the mountain. Is that not enough?

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies
(2014)

(SPOILERS) Peter Jackson’s second Tolkien trilogy has ignited controversy and disenchantment, much of it vented by those who praised him to the heavens for his work on the first. The Hobbitses aren’t quite the equivalent of George Lucas’ much-maligned Star Wars prequels, but few would deny there is a noticeable step down in quality from The Lord of the Rings. The main bones of contention remain ever-present in The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies.


There are the invented characters and unnecessary encores for known ones that shouldn’t be there. There’s the over-use of CGI employed to engineer frequently ludicrous action sequences, which are rendered devoid of tension as a result. There’s the expansion of a slim volume to the point where it isn’t quite clear what the picture is about any more. I enjoyed the previous two films (the second more than the first), but it was a stop-start enjoyment, whereby Jackson could be relied on to throw something in the mix at intervals that was tonally glaring or even woefully misconceived. 


While I fully expected this to follow suit, I also had limited expectations for the third instalment based on the retitling; Battle of the Five Armies would be an extended dust-up, one that becomes wearisome through repetition and a lack of places to go with its story. In that respect I was pleasantly surprised. The film is much more balanced than its name suggests (There and Back Again would, admittedly, be a misfit), both in the amount of time it takes to get to the fighting and in engaging the viewer with the different strands of the melee itself.


This is a solid adaptation, one possessed of a familiarity that has long since ceased to invite superlatives. It hangs together much better than one would expect, given that it represents the afterthought of the series; Jackson’s not-at-all-cynical-honestly expansion from two films to three. It’s unvarnished genesis is most evident in the leaner running time (by about 20 minutes) and the dispatching of Smaug in the opening sequence. I’m not sure the latter decision really services any aspect of the story, outside of the home viewing of the trilogy arena, since Smaug is the tale’s biggest character and the most iconic presence. Having built up the dragon’s threat effectively, Jackson managed to dissipate the tension and break the rhythm by ending The Desolation of Smaug on a cliffhanger. The sequence itself is effectively staged, but it would be more so as one unit. 


Luke Evans, who has not always been well served in his film roles, makes a strong showing as Bard throughout; he’s a more accessible leader than the impossibly noble Aragorn. The only trouble is that as he assumes the mantle of leader so his screen time diminishes to make way for more dwarfish matters. He also gets a typically dumb Jackson rescue sequence atop a runaway cart (Bard’s sufferance of not-so-comic-relief weasel Aldrid – Ryan Gage – also serves to undermine him slightly.  


Better served in the humour stakes is Stephen Fry’s Master of Laketown; at least, I liked his line where he regrets not saving more people because “they’re just not worth it”.) During the course of the battle itself, we get to see Billy Connolly riding a pig (the CGI mounts in these films have become no better realised in 10 years) and a skydiving bear. The comedy in Jackson’s post-splatter films has always been variable (I don’t think the Beorn is supposed to be funny) and more often that not he misses his marks. Sylvester McCoy, who was surprisingly okay in An Unexpected Journey, is onscreen for about two minutes.


As I say, I’d expected the battle to be a stodgy and overstuffed pudding. Yet Jackson takes well-judged time getting there (although many would say he takes far too much time and liberty getting everywhere in these three films). The release of Gandalf occurs with perfunctory ease, and there is something of a greatest hits package about the arrival of Galadriel (including dark Galadriel revealing her monochrome fury), Saruman, and Elrond, fighting the Nazgul and eliciting a Sauron cameo. At times, the Lucas trap is set for all too see in The Battle of the Five Armies, not only in the over-reliance on CGI where once there was physicality and weight, but also – in scenes such as this – taking unnecessary pains to interlink and reference what is yet to come. I enjoyed the sequence, but Christopher Lee all but winks at the camera when Saruman say he’ll go and deal with this (his super-acrobatic fighting skills are a definite improvement on his Dooku moves).


So too, Lee Pace’s Thranduil when he suggests Legolas seeks out Strider. Who may be some sort of super-special kind of fellow but Thranduil’s not telling quite how. Jackson is over-egging the pudding, just as the effect of bookending the adaptation with Ian Holm denies the story an identity in its own right. The Hobbit will forever exist in reference and deference to The Lord of the Rings, which may not impinge on the latter, but it is definitely deleterious to the former.


Orlando Bloom’s presence in this trilogy is easily the most glaring and egregious. No one was demanding he return, apart from Bloom and his agent, and Legolas’ waxy-fake rejuvenation fails to convince at any given moment. Worse, the already artless CGI acrobatics of his original appearances are now augmented beyond any rhyme or reason. Does Jackson think it’s cool to have the irksome Elf hitch a ride on a bat? Or is he, perversely, clutching the cheesy fakery to his prodigious bosom, just as he did when Legolas slid down a oliphaunt’s trunk in The Return of the King


At least the fight with Bolg has some mano a mano energy, although it too falls prey to busyness and pixelated video-game defiance of feasibility (leaping up falling rocks). What bothers most about the whacky CGI Jackson frequently indulges in The Hobbits is that it destroys the illusion, collapses any suspension of disbelief. Middle Earth is no longer an encompassing, immersive world.


The Elvish are also where my other big beef with Battle of the Five Armies arises. I don’t have a problem changes to the source material as long as it doesn’t adversely affect the wholer picture. Evangeline Lilly’s Tauriel was fine in the previous pictures, partly because Lilly was a strong and commanding presence, easily eclipsing Bloom, and partly because she was used reasonably well. That is, up until the point Jackson decided to intimate the love that dare not speak its name between a dwarf and an elf. 


Obviously, it had to be a photogenic dwarf (Aidan Turner’s Kili) and not a fugly one with a prodigious proboscis (Tauriel’s romance with the fat ginger one Bombur really would have been ground-breaking). Star-crossed besottedness becomes Tauriel’s defining characteristic this time out, and it leaves her ineffectual and hopeless. Their passions have been inflamed after about five minutes together, but neither the actors nor Jackson is able to sell this.  It’s particularly laughable that Thranduil, having read her the riot act, should be persuaded her feelings are in fact genuine and pure. Most damningly, Tauriel also becomes another moon-eyed damsel in distress who needs Legolas to do the man’s work for her.


Other elements work as well as you would hope, though. If Thorin’s dragon sickness echoes and previews Boromir’s, then it feels appropriately so. Richard Armitage musters a compelling portrait of a noble character brought low by greed; it’s the kind of substantial motivation The Hobbits have lacked through being (naturally) slight and slender pieces stretched beyond their means. It also works as an effective twist in a third film, as Thorin has been marked as effectively the classical hero of the trilogy. His face-off with Azog finds Jackson on strong form, and includes a superior sequence as the Orc floats beneath a sheet of ice.


The battle is well staged for the most part, and all-the-more effective for the detours into one-on-ones with Azog and Bolg. While there’s a nod to the novel’s Bilbo being out cold for the duration of the conflict, Jackson wisely makes better use of him, providing a sequence with the ring and so ensuring we keep in our minds how much influence it has on him. Without it, the malign hold would seem more casual than cumulative. 


Nevertheless, Bilbo really is incidental here, and I have to admit that, as dependable as Freeman is, he doesn’t take on the dimensions or presence of Elijah Wood or Ian Holm’s eminent hobbits; this might be because I see past roles too clearly in his performance. As familiarity goes, Ian McKellen Gandalf’s parting lines to Bilbo, verging on admonishment, are up there with his best, but otherwise the wizard is an entirely familiar part of the furniture; a piece placed in the corner of the room with a few coats piled on it.


Jackson doesn’t include about 10 different endings here (there are three), so I expect the extended addition will include a few items that need acknowledgement (Bilbo’s share of the treasure, the fate of the Arkenstone). I’m not expecting great things, but I’m curious to view the extended versions back-to-back; perhaps they will prove greater than the sum of their parts. With the exception of The Fellowship of the Ring, I didn’t find the original trilogy entirely satisfying until it landed in longer form.


I also suspect time will be kinder to The Hobbit than it has been to the Star Wars prequels. Brickbats were out for both, but, while the disappointment with Jackson’s tonal liberties and visual incontinence are understandable, there are still many things here he gets right, and much to enjoy throughout. They won’t ever be seen as classics like The Lord of the Rings – they lack the sweeping scale, the emotional journey, and the clear sense of identity, apart from anything else – but they will probably become accepted as likeable if slightly over-nourished relatives. Which should see them through until the next versions are made in another 30 or 40 years.



Everybody's gone out of their mind.

Trailers
Mad Max: Fury Road

George Miller’s directorial career, the impressive action spectacle cast by his initial Mad Max trilogy aside, seems borderline random. Miller, not to be confused with the for-good-reason less celebrated director of The Man from Snowy River and The Neverending Story II: The Next Chapter, could probably have conquered Hollywood if he had so wished. If he’d just stuck to making action movies. But Miller went his own way, taking in black comedies, true-life dramas, and family features. A meagre five features in 30 years. Miller will turn 70 next year. The character that made his name turned 35 in April. And now Miller’s come back to Max. The warrior Max.


The director has said he has lots of stories to tell, and the reason he left Max at the end of the first trilogy was because he was done with him. Following Beyond Thunderdome he made his second biggest hit The Witches of Eastwick, which, aside from sharing a devilish sense of humour, couldn’t have been more removed from the brutal elemental force of Outback autogeddon. Lorenzo’s Oil, a little seen story of a self-taught curative treatment drew on Miller’s own training as a doctor. 


After that, his credits would relate to family features, a reflection of the preoccupations of fatherhood, but with a pronounced dark edge. Chris Noonan, the director of Babe (which he and Miller wrote) professes to have fallen out with Miller since, unhappy with the credit he perceives Miller for the film. He no doubt sees it as justice that Babe: Pig in the City, which Miller steered himself, tanked. It may not be the classic that the original is, but it is a fascinatingly twisted descent into urban nightmare territory for the poor pig.


I don’t know how fair Noonan’s view is, but, purely on the level of physical credits, Miller has officially co-directed three of his nine features, which doesn’t suggest an egomaniac. First with George Ogilvie on Thunderdome; Ogilvie concentrated on the actors and Miller on the stunts It’s been said that Miller’s interest in the project waned after his producer-friend Byron Kennedy died during pre-production, but the real problem with the picture is that Max has been grafted onto another idea (the tribe of children). Miller then co-directed both Happy Feet; like Babe, the first was a big hit and the second fizzled.


Miller’s career could have looked very different at this point; he was in the director’s chair for Contact until issues with the producers saw him replaced by Robert Zemeckis. A few years later, the first iteration of Fury Road couldn’t get off the starting line due to a combination of political sensitivities and the value of the dollar. With its demise went any chance of Mel Gibson returning to the role. Then, in 2007, Miller attached himself to Justice League, which we will finally see, like Fury Road, about a decade after it was first planned. That one created unease due to its clash with the Nolan Bat-verse, but was mainly scuppered by a combination of the planned Australian shoot proving prohibitively costly and the writer’s strike.


Any concern that all this not making of a live action movie in 15 years – or any movie with humans as the principals in 20 – or worry that, without Mel (even given all that has happened in the past few years) Max just isn’t Max fell away when the Comic Con trailer hit last summer. This has only been reiterated by the one released last week. This is a world apart from the down-and-dirty exploitation (Ozploitation) picture of the first Max. Yet that trilogy became progressively cleaner and more stylised as it progressed – until we got Mullet Mel and Tina Turner in the final one. But for all its relative finery, Fury Road feels like it is of the same post-apocalyptic universe as Mad Max 2/The Road Warrior.


Miller had said his idea for Fury Road just wouldn’t go away, adding that there are possibly two sequels waiting in the wings.  He’s referred to the picture as a western. Max’s clearly defined origins are, on the face of it, very different to Leone’s The Man With No Name, while Miller’s high-octane action is an opposite to Leone’s luxuriant expansion of time to the point where twitchy tension takes a hold. Yet there is common ground between them; arid settings; bold, cartoonish and grotesque imagery; a ghoulish sense of humour; the same actors playing different characters in different instalments; a (anti-) hero defined by minimalism and a mythic/iconic presence who can be dropped in to a story.


The plot consists of one long chase, taking place over three days, and has
 Max fall in with/get rescued by (and no doubt do a bit of rescuing himself) Charlize Theron’s Imperator Furiosa. Reportedly there’s very little dialogue, but the radio announcements introducing the trailers give us the gist. While we are told, “They are killing for gasoline” the keynote is that everything is dependent on water, and “Now there’s the water wars”. 


Max is clearly reticent, on his own (no faithful hound, but that would be too much of a repeat, and I think it’s more fitting that this is a sideways, non-beholden reimagining (after all, as note above, anyone attempting to marry the previous pictures has problems such as Bruce Spence in two completely different roles). His world is “fire and blood” but he needs to be told “Everybody’s out of their mind. You’re not the only one Max”.


As with both Thunderdome and Mad Max 2, there is the suggestion of a reluctant path back to humanity for Tom Hardy’s lizard-stomping Max (he looks like a straggly hermit when we first glimpse him). Both trailers appear to be focused on the same section of the movie (although, given that it’s an extended chase, I expect that’s not the case), with many of the shots showing Max captured, chained and muzzled  – and rescued. It’s an effective decision, creating anticipation for his character, but predictably provoked complaints that Theron (who looks great, even with a mechanical arm, and reportedly has a juicy character to dig into) seems to be taking the lead role.


If pushed I prefer the teaser trailer, but both are deliriously effective pieces, doing a great job of selling a movie without letting everything out of the bag (Confidential Music’s atmospheric, scene-setting version of Wild World segueing into Ninja TracksThe Module Remix, with its engine sounds, gear changes, and revving, is quite exhilarating). They also both show a welcome sense of humour. It’s there in the editing and the choice of music; Verdi’s Requiem is used as quirky punctuation, set to clear, precise visuals. It’s clear Miller knows exactly where he wants the camera and the effect he wants to achieve. 


One of the un-Baned shots of Hardy in both trailers completely sells his charisma; his little smile, looking back from the cabin of a truck, and tiny thumbs-up. This is going to be epic and brutal, but also enormous fun. Nicholas Hoult’s bald, chaff-lipped Nux seizes his moment with “Oh, what a day! What a lovely day!Fury Road gives him the chance to stretch himself with something bigger and bolder than we expect from him.


The design work is persuasive, from big drums and big guns and big pole-vaulting, to the expected designer savages (Hugh Keays-Bryne, Mad Max’s Toecutter, cuts an imposing semi-visage as Immortan Joe). Big hair and shoulder pads may be out, but the cannibal-opulence chic suggests what Road Warrior’s punk marauders are wearing this summer. There are also abundant skull motifs, inventory tattoos,  curious dashboard toys and steering wheel totems. And what looks like an auto from Peter Weir’s The Cars that Ate Paris.



One might exercise a note of caution concerning a plot that seems to partly revolve around stealing beautiful women straight out of a lingerie catalogue (albeit with toothsome chastity belts), as that seems more in line with the grand fantasy of Thunderdome, and the whirling CGI sandstorm that surfaces seems like a stark betrayal of the promise that all the car stunts are real.


 But really, doesn’t this just look great? That shot of Theron kneeling on the sand. I’m yet to be convinced by the announcement that George Miller is a mastermind, but he’s an enormously accomplished filmmaker. I just wish he’d been making more of this order over the last 20 years. 15 May 2015 will indeed be a lovely day.