MAD MAX: FURY ROAD
“Oh what a day... What a lovely day!!”
Reboots, remakes and revamps have become an exhaustingly persistent cinematic malady, one that has over the years provoked warranted scepticism, justified eye-rolls and uncontrollable nausea.
With this (and the film’s trailer) in mind, anyone could have been forgiven for dismissing Mad Max: Fury Road as yet another testosterone-fuelled franchise resurrection acting as a blockbuster filler until the upcoming big summer players hit the multiplexes.
However, against all odds, Mad Max: Fury Road is not the one-note action flick many could have apprehended...
In a post-apocalyptic desertscape (think the polar opposite of Waterworld), the tormented Max Rockatansky (Tom Hardy) is captured by a bunch of lunatics who operate under the despotic control of Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne). The brutal warlord, who looks like the nightmarish love child of Bane and Peter Stringfellow, keeps his followers in check by controlling the supply of water.
Things take a turn for the insane when Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron), one of Joe’s top officers who can no longer bear the patriarchal tyranny. She decides to smuggle a group of female captives (Joe’s broodmares) out of Joe’s HQ, in search of her utopian homeland. Max unwittingly ends up helping Furiosa to free the “wives”. Now all they have to do is out-drive the angry motorised hoard chasing them...
Filmed in what seems to be an ashtray, Mad Max: Fury Road is utterly unhinged. And quite brilliant.
Released 30 years since the last instalment, this new chapter doesn’t require any prior knowledge of George Miller’s saga. It works as a standalone, championing a refreshingly straightforward plot. There are no superfluous exposition scenes, box-ticking dialogues or ham-fisted backstories here; it hits the ground running with the assumption you’ve buckled your seatbelts.
The cast are spot-on, with Tom Hardy nailing the grunting Max, the unrecognisable Nicholas Hoult bringing the goods as the amoebic Nux and Charlize Theron stealing the show as Joan of Arc with an Ellen Ripley buzzcut. In fact, the film’s title is somewhat misleading, as the main centre of attention is her Amazonian warrior looking for redemption. She and her unlikely harem ensure that Eve Ensler (the playwright best known for writing The Vagina Monologues)’s description of Mad Max: Fury Road as a “feminist action film” is more than deserved. Miller’s script adroitly criticises patriarchal values, shows men as destroyers and women not only as their equals but also the only hope mankind has left.
Many will (and have already started to) bellyache and fuss over whether or not it truly is a feminist film. The truth of the matter is that the feminist undertones are identifiable but inconsequential; the important thing is that the film takes risks with regards to gender roles by avoiding stock characters. A rarity in most big-budget action films.
Beyond feminist reading of the film is the action. And what a lot of action there is... It’s an orgy of colours, an unrelenting symphony of amphetamised carnage that is unlike anything you’ve ever seen. You’ll smell the gasoline, taste the rust and feel the desert sand ferociously pummelling you.
The action sequences are choreographed in such a way that the onscreen chaos seems both gritty and balletic, provoking the same jaw-dropping reaction both The Raid: Redemption and The Raid: Berendal induced. This is all down to physical prowesses of the cast and stunt team, the insistence on non-CGI effects and, above all, the craft of cinematographer John Seale (The English Patient, The Talented Mr Ripley). The latter was coerced out of retirement by Miller and thankfully so. The desert is brought to screen with a trio of combustible yellows, vibrant oranges and threatening reds, while the night scenes are filmed with such a gorgeous blue palette that somewhere Michael Mann is shaking his fist with envy. Seale’s artistry is essential to the film’s appeal. He even gives it one of its standout moments: a sandstorm scene that can only be described as the artistic pact JM Turner and HP Lovecraft made in hell.
Combine Seale’s visual elegance with the crazy camera movements, the impeccably detailed costume design and a brilliant ending, which is a sly throwback to the Westerns of old, and you’ve got a nightmarish feast for the retinas.
Against all odds, George Miller has defied and cured the reboot / remake / revamp illness by orchestrating one of the most euphorically anarchic blockbusters of all time. While it could have benefitted from a leaner running time (two hours of carmageddon can rapidly become a tad trying), Mad Max: Fury Road nonetheless remains unique. It is a demented operatic experience that takes a hold of you and mercilessly spits you out once it’s done. You’ll be left shattered and exhilarated, having witnessed the silliest, most inventive and daring action films in decades.
You’d be mad to miss out.
- D - 17/05/15
WOMAN IN GOLD
Woman In Beige
Based on a true story, Simon Curtis’ Woman In Gold retells the tale of Viennese-born Maria Altmann (Helen Mirren) and her struggle in the 90s to reclaim what was stolen from her wealthy Jewish family during WWII.
Having fled Nazi Austria with her husband and made her home in the US, Maria learns of a change regarding Austria’s restitution regulations; she could rightfully reclaim her family’s Nazi-confiscated paintings, including a 1907 portrait of her aunt, Adele Bloch-Bauer. This eponymous portrait was painted by Gustav Klimt. It has been hanging in Vienna’s Belvedere Gallery since its illegal appropriation and is not only worth $100m but regarded as the Austrian Mona Lisa.
Maria enlists an inexperienced young lawyer Randol “Randy” Schoenberg (Ryan Reynolds) to help her right a historical wrong...
This rather fascinating true story, which lead to the 1998 legal battle against Austrian authorities for the ownership of the famous Klimt painting, has sadly been distilled to a rather simplistic film. It boils down to a rather obvious reworking of Stephen Frears’ far superior Philomena, with a side helping of George Clooney’s Monuments Men and Tim Burton’s Big Eyes.
While this potpourri of celluloid references could appear appealing, Woman In Gold ends up being rather vanilla. The odd-couple on a road trip routine between Judi Dench and Steve Coogan worked beautifully in Philomena; here, the pairing is short-handed by Ryan Reynolds’ rather forgettable performance, especially compared to Helen Mirren’s stronger turn. Added to this is a predictable screenplay by Alexi Kaye Campbell, who has favoured the paint-by-numbers approach instead of fully dealing with more complex themes such as remembrance, Austria's cultural identity or even art ownership. The overreliance on flashbacks lacks nuance and the film seems quite content with simply box-ticking the ‘underdogs vs the system’ and ‘rousing courtroom scene’ boxes.
The supporting players barely register, with a few humorous cameos (Jonathan Price stands out) and a barely believable turn from Katie Holmes, who is burdened with a two-dimensional role as Schoenberg’s heavily-pregnant and all-too-accepting wife. As for Daniel Bruhl, he is relegated to being a plot cypher. He does manage to make an impression and, frustratingly, his story (a crusading Austrian journalist dealing with a dark family past) becomes more interesting than the main plot, to the extent the audience is left wishing the narrative would shift focus.
Less forgivably, the familiar script broadly paints most on-screen Austrians as the descendants of Nazi sympathizers; the film does itself no favours by representing our mismatched duo’s opponents as the smirking elite viz heaviii akzentz. Added to that is the fact that at no point does either side question their motivations, making the film cartoonish and at times dumbing, all for the sake of a feel-good denouement.
Despite its shortcomings, Woman In Gold is redeemed by Mirren’s feisty performance. Thanks to her, the film comes off as competent and well-intentioned. It will satisfy as a Sunday afternoon film but won’t go down as inspirational or as memorable as the Weinstein Company were clearly aiming for.
- D - 07/05/15
AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON
Avengers: The Rise of Pinocchio
What started off as a small wink to comic book fans at the end of 2008’s Iron Man became the cinematic team-up that provoked nerdgasms worldwide. The Avengers did what many thought was impossible: seamlessly interweaving the varied and pre-established coda of Earth’s Mightiest Heroes, moving the Marvel universe forward and crucially, managing to stand on its own two feet as an individual crowd-pleaser.
As if that wasn’t enough, Joss Whedon’s film became the third-highest grossing picture of all time.
Talk about hard acts to follow...
So, three years later, the returning director is at it again, faced with a similar conundrum Sam Mendes will encounter later this year with his second stab at the Bond franchise: can you keep lightning in a bottle?
We meet our eponymous band of heroes mid-action, as they storm the castle of a HYDRA operative. The Avengers recover Loki’s stolen scepter and discover that the Asgardian MacGuffin has not only been used to give extraordinary powers to a set of vengeful twins (Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Elizabeth Olsen, as the “he’s fast, she’s weird” duo) but could also be instrumental in one of Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr)’s adventures in science. He and has lab compadre Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) birth Ultron (James Spader), much to the frustration of the team. You see, instead of being the figurehead for world peace, Ultron turns out to be a bad egg who reaches the conclusion that the Avengers are incompatible with the world’s best interests. The team must find the rogue AI, foil his genocidal plans, avoid the blessed twins, create a subsequent-but-this-time-benevolent AI (Paul Bettany, whose character might as well be called Vision-ex-machina) and figure out what Infinity Gems are… all before it’s too late.
Feeling dizzy yet? Avengers: Age of Ultron will do that to you.
Joss Whedon’s action packed tapestry moves along at a breakneck pace and doesn’t let you take a breather. The director imbues this superhero update of Mary Shelley’s 'Frankenstein' with enough quip-smart dialogue, impeccably choreographed action sequences and sugar-rush verve that non-stop entertainment is assured.
However, for all its strengths, there’s no escaping the fact that Avengers: Age of Ultron is bloated. There are so many plot strands that the overall impression once the 142-minutes are up is that nothing was ever truly and memorably fleshed-out. The narrative messily moves from one beat to the next with such speed even Quicksilver would get whiplash: Ultron suddenly pops up with an impressive lack of set-up; the Hulkbuster sequence is crowbarred in the proceedings; The Vision’s creation seems to come out of nowhere... It doesn’t feel as adroitly orchestrated, balanced or necessary as Whedon’s MCU debut.
The less said about Thor’s hallucinatory Jacuzzi, the better.
Granted, it may be easy to fondly reminisce about The Avengers, due to the then-novelty factor. However, it’s hard to shake the feeling that the excellent cast and the self-aware one-liners can’t quite make this second chapter as satisfying as its predecessor or other Marvel properties; last year’s Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Guardians of the Galaxy were superior.
Refreshing elements like bringing Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye and Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow (via an interesting relationship with The Hulk) to the center stage are interesting and prove not only that Whedon is the man for the job but also that the true appeal of the Marvel films is not the impressive action sequences: it’s the character-driven moments that create sparks. Sadly, even these protagonist-centric bursts feel rushed, in favour of double the subplots, double the action and double the personnel.
Many will argue that considering the ridiculously high levels of hype and expectation, Avengers: Age of Ultron was doomed to disappoint. There is a case to be made for this and while the second outing doesn’t collapse under its own weight, you can’t help but wonder how much better it could have been with significant narrative streamlining and some merciless editing.
That being said, the superior first half is great fun and the film is an enjoyable mess. It slots into Marvel’s cinematic universe less as a satisfying standalone and more as a mid-section staller before the endgame is unravelled.
Verdict? Whedon can wield the lightning but he’s just fallen short of containing it this time round, turning the Avengers into the Averagers.
- D - 27/04/15
AGITATED? Or AGGRAVATED?
MIT students Nic (Brendon Thwaites) and Jonah (Beau Knapp) are taking a road trip to drop off Nic’s girlfriend, Haley (Olivia Cooke), at university in California. Nic is coping with the early stages of MS and trying to figure out whether or not his couple can survive the West Coast move, on top of his condition.
It soon transpires that both Nic and Jonah have an ulterior motive for the cross-country drive: tracking down an enigmatic hacker named Nomad. This mysterious figure has been taunting the tech-savvy duo with cryptic messages, asking ‘R U Agitated?’.
Despite Hailey’s reservations, their troll hunt leads them to an abandoned house in Nevada, pinpointed thanks to the titular signal. Then... Well, if you intend on watching William Eubank’s sophomore film, you’re better off not knowing what happens next.
Safe to say that you won’t see it coming.
And it includes Lawrence Fishburne in a hazmat suit.
Indebted to many, The Signal is an impressive hodgepodge. It starts as a slow-burning road trip, briefly tangents into Blair Witch Project territory, before seguing into The X Files-meets-District 9.
While this dizzying marriage of references may sound bafflingly awful, Eubank’s low budget genre mongrel actually works. The director infuses the proceedings with enough cryptic tension to keep the audience curious and hungry for answers. He also heavily relies on a slick production design, championed by cinematographer David Lanzenberg, whose art surpasses the film’s budget.
It is frustrating then that the film ultimately fails to realize its tantalizingly bonkers potential. The notable visuals only end up outshining a narrative that gradually loses momentum and while one or two surprising twists, coupled with some “I really should have seen that coming” foreshadowing do have their merit, the audaciously silly final act is simply not as clever as it thinks it is.
Neither dexterous nor deep enough to stand alongside the Shane Carruths of this world, you cannot fault Eubank’s direction or The Signal’s grasp-exceeding ambition. Unlike the recent (and far superior) Ex Machina, it won’t get your cogs turning but the journey leading up to the Twilight Zone-heavy endgame is decent enough to keep you entertained. You’ll just wish Eubank had stuck to one signal instead of mixing the frequencies.
- D - 14/04/15
Not so artificial intelligence…
2015 is shaping up to be an A.I.-centric year.
We’ve already had Disney’s Big Hero 6 and Neill Blomkamp’s Chappie. The upcoming Avengers: Age of Ultron promises to break box office records. The looming Terminator: Genisys, if the trailer and the bafflingly-spelt title are anything to go by, will provoke more involuntary laughter than thrills. Even more alarming, before the year is over, we may well be subjected to yet another punishingly awful film from the king of artificial intelligence himself: Adam Sandler.
With the looming shadow cast by these big box-office players and the bitter taste left by last year’s Transcendence, will Alex Garland’s directorial debut register on the year’s overcrowded radar?
Programmer Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) works at Bluebook, an internet research engine. He wins an in-house competition to spend a week with the company’s CEO, Nathan (Oscar Isaac). The latter is a reclusive genius who lives in a mountain facility that would make Bond baddies’ shorts shrink. Caleb is helicoptered onto the secluded estate, meets the intensely charismatic Nathan and realizes that his boss is more Dr Frankenstein than Steve Jobs: Nathan wants Caleb to be the human component in a Turing test. Over the course of a week, Caleb will be faced with Ava (Alicia Vikander). He has to assess whether Nathan’s creation can think for itself without faking or imitating human interaction and ultimately, give his verdict on whether Ava can pass for a human being.
This unprecedented opportunity for Caleb gradually begins to turn slightly sinister. What is the true reason behind Nathan giving a functional sexuality to his A.I.? What are the frequent generator blackouts hiding? What is the deal with Nathan’s creepy maid? Is the Turing test the only exercise in effect?
Ex Machina shows from the get-go that cult-novelist Alex Garland ('The Beach', 'Coma', as well as screenplays for 28 Days Later and Sunshine) has seamlessly made the transition from screenwriter to director. He does both here, ensuring that his story goes beyond well-worn sci-fi territory. While topics of mass surveillance and technophobia are dealt with, Garland injects them with a level of sophistication that refuses to pander to the lowest common denominator. It’s the audience’s job to keep up with the meaty dialogue and there’s no shortage of food for thought.
Coupled with these themes is a healthy helping of Hitchcockian tension. Indeed, Ex Machina is a game of wits between three protagonists, each one with possible hidden agendas and contrasting moral compasses.
The acting trio in question is superb. Oscar Isaac shines as the sardonic genius with a God complex, Domhnall Gleeson is spot-on as the earnest worker trying to be a good person and Alicia Vikander is a true revelation. The actress puts her Royal Swedish Ballet School training to good use here, managing to subtly tread a delicate line: she is humanly elegant in her mannerisms and yet manages to make each head tilt and blink ethereal. Her restrained turn as Ava is eerily sensual and stands proudly next to other robotic counterparts such as Metropolis’ Maria and Blade Runner’s Pris.
Adding to the tension and sinister undercurrent is Rob Hardy’s stunning photography, which orchestrates a clash between the ultra-modernist, claustrophobic mansion and the wide Norwegian landscape that surrounds it. Both are beautiful in their own ways and this marriage of opposites highlights the differences between the man-made and the natural. The setting is made thematically relevant, as the line between the organic and the artificial is blurred on many levels.
Garland also keeps us on our tippy toes by peppering this impressive scenery with minor flourishes that could or could not be red herrings: Jackson Pollock and Gustave Klimt paintings, the cracked glass in Ava’s room or even the mysterious scar on Caleb’s back... Added to these possible Easter eggs is a well-judged dose of humour, one which cleverly fuels the impression that something is amiss. For instance, the synched dancing scene between Nathan and his enigmatic maid is entertaining yet mildly unnerving, showing the impressive extent to which the director confidently handles the proceedings.
For a film whose title refers to a theatrical device allowing a swift resolution (‘Deus Ex Machina’), Ex Machina shines by its absence of such a basic narrative tool. It is a film that chooses to bypass any and all cop-outs, electing to offer no easy answers. While the somewhat meandering pace might be a hindrance for some, Alex Garland has delivered a slick and thought-provoking film that will delight discerning filmgoers who enjoy some spine-tingling tension in their cerebral sci-fi.
More than a blip on 2015’s saturated A.I. radar, Ex Machina may just be the one to beat.
- D - 10/04/15
…But hollow heart
Tim Burton’s Big Eyes promises much.
It isn’t an adaptation of a musical, a children’s book or a TV series. The stranger-than-fiction tale is based on the life of Margaret Keane, with the script penned by the same team behind his 1994 biopic Ed Wood. Refreshingly and for the first time in 11 years, Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter are both AWOL.
Everything pointed towards a departure from the hollow crowd pleasers the director has been releasing over the past few years.
How disappointing then that what could have been his most personal canvas in years feels like one of the film’s mass-produced copies.
In 1950s California, Margaret (Amy Adams) arrives in San Francisco with her daughter, having fled from her husband. In her trunk are her paintings of waif-like children with oversized peepers. Trying to make ends meet, she attempts to sell paintings on art markets. One weekend, she meets Walter Keane (Christoph Waltz), a self-confessed “Sunday painter” who seems to be enjoying a moderate amount of success with his rather bland Parisian streetscapes.
The two quickly get married and, through a series of fortunate events, Walter’s thus far-dwindling artistic aspirations suddenly perk up: Margaret’s paintings start selling and the smooth talker begins to take credit for his wife’s work. Easily done, considering she now signs her paintings ‘Keane’ and “people don’t buy lady art”.
Margaret reluctantly agrees for this sham to continue. She paints, he sells and the name Keane becomes an overnight sensation. However, with success comes demand and their relationship becomes more abusive: she slaves away creating more “Keanes” while he is left to soak up the limelight.
The story of Margaret Keane, and the artistic fraud of which she was a victim, is fascinating. It offers a layered story of a woman faced with post-war gender discrimination and was begging to be told. However, the portrait of an artist working up the courage to challenge the chauvinism inherent in the artistic milieu has ended up, in Burton’s hands, as a missed opportunity painted in very broad brushstrokes.
Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski’s script adds to the niggling feeling that we’re only skimming the surface. The screenplay glosses over themes of creative authorship and the complicated tension between popularity and critical approval. It also fails to satisfyingly embrace the period backdrop. Beyond gender politics, the redefinition of art by the pop culture movement is only briefly touched upon when Margaret walks past a shelf of Campbell’s soup and sees a display of her reproduced paintings in the supermarket. The beat is satisfying but doesn’t go any further.
Not that it’s completely without merit. Big Eyes looks wonderful, thanks to Bruno Delbonnel’s polished and retro-like cinematography. As for the cast, Amy Adams is hugely engaging as Margaret Keane. Her birdlike mannerisms and measured turn contrasts well with Christoph Waltz’ more cartoonish delivery and, even if the latter could be accused of hamming it up, his energy is needed to make Walter believable as the silver-tongued con man obsessed with the fortune fame has to offer.
Sadly, because of the absence of character insight and much needed gravitas, the look and the performances don’t manage to save the film from its shallowness. The tone clumsily shifts from melodramatic to comedic so often that by the end of the film, you’re glad justice is done but at no point was Margaret’s weighty plight truly heartfelt. The courtroom scene in the film’s surprisingly anodyne finale, while funny, underplays the drama. When Margaret compares the coerced fraud within her abusive relationship to losing a child, the poignant image simply falls flat because of the slapstick injected into the scene and anticlimactic lack of tension.
When confronting her fraudulent husband, Margaret says: “It’s like a mirage. From a distance, you look like a painter, but up close there’s not much there.”
It’s a pity that the same can be said of the film.
While Big Eyes manages to entertain and is a step up from Tim Burton’s recent flicks, it crucially does not provoke the emotions Margret Keane’s story sorely needed. The celluloid treatment did not necessarily need to be suffocating or bleak; however, this was a narrative that deserved a less paint-by-numbers approach.
- D - 20/03/15
Or: How John Dolittle went feral
Cheery Jerry (Ryan Reynolds) lives in Twin Peaks-reminiscent Milton. This socially awkward and mild-mannered young man tries hard to fit in. He works hard, attempts to socialize with his co-workers, sees his court-appointed therapist (Jacki Weaver) and desperately tries to get closer to the token British office totty (Gemma Arterton).
However, when he gets home, the titular voices come… One good. One evil.
The typical cartoon shoulder-dwelling tag team are anthropomorphised by Jerry’s Sam Elliot-sounding dog Bosco (the angel) and his Scottish cat Mr. Whiskers (the demon). The former tries to reassure his owner by telling him he’s “a good man”; the latter, when he’s not asking “Where’s my fucking food, fuckface?”, nefariously pushes him to commit cat-astrophes.
Of course, as in life, the cat has the upper hand and when Jerry listens to the self-professed “devil’s advo-cat” a smidge too much, he stops taking his meds. As a consequence, his fridge rapidly starts to house heads.
Human heads he’s collected from disembodied corpses he’s neatly packed into Tupperware.
Human heads that start speaking to him from their refrigerated confines, pleading for more company…
Iranian-born artist and director Marjane Satrapi, of Persepolis fame, brings her graphic sensibilities to The Voices and creates a surreally upbeat and gory hodgepodge. Her craft is adroitly shown by the hallucination sequences, which perceptively illustrate the schism between Jerry’s saccharine world view and the bleak, conformist reality others see. It’s cleverly done and these novel flights of fancy work well to show the reassuring allure of fantasy over the dullness of reality.
The cast are all game, with Gemma Arterton doing her typical English crumpet schtick and Anna Kendrick being entrancingly huggable, as per. That being said, the film rests on Ryan Reynolds’ shoulders. He plays the lovechild of Patrick Bateman and Dr. Dolittle and truly gets to stretch his acting chops. In fact, the last time he was this good was in Rodrigo Cortes’ Buried. Reynolds, who also voices both his pets, even manages to make the mentally unstable Jerry touching and somewhat endearing, thanks to his boyish charms and pleading eyes. When he says, weakly, “I try to be good, but terrible things happen”, you believe him.
However, the main issue, quite aside from the fact that The Voices is tonally all over the place, is that Michael Perry’s script goes nowhere. It’s as if the scribe ran out of ideas following the attractive but skeletal pitch. The first half capitalizes on the warped black comedy premise; it constantly pinballs between off-kilter romantic comedy and bleak slasher movie and the result is very entertaining. However, the film loses itself in its second half, when more jarring elements are taped on for no reason. Sombre elements are injected, including a flashback explaining Jerry’s afflictions, and none of it feels necessary. The film then aimlessly fumbles until its finale, a song and dance sequence to the tune of the O’Jays. While this end sequence harks back to the first half’s unhinged laugh-out-loud moments, the overall feeling once the credits roll is more one of startled bewilderment rather than satisfaction of having witnessed an absurdist, cohesive whole.
Part black comedy, part cautionary tale about letting a cat into your life, The Voices sadly fails to convince as a satirically original look at mental illness or even as a fully-fledged farce. Instead, it lands somewhere in between, making Satrapi’s film endearing at times but ultimately too uneven to leave a lingering mark. See it if foul-mouthed felines are appealing and if you ever wondered what Jesus would look like as a sandal-shimmying forklift operator. If you can live without these things, just pick up a Hugh Lofting book, put on your best Scottish brogue and simply pepper the proceedings with a fair few ‘fuck’s.
- D - 17/03/15
KINGSMAN: THE SECRET SERVICE
On Her Majesty’s Sweary Service
During a tête-a-tête between agent Harry Hart (Colin Firth) and Kingsman: The Secret Service’s megalomaniacal antagonist Richmond Valentine (Samuel L. Jackson), the two discuss films. Spy films to be more precise.
“You like spy movies?” Valentine asks his guest.
“Nowadays they’re all a little bit too serious for my taste,” Harry replies. “Give me a far-fetched theatrical plot any day.”
This meta exchange serves as a statement of intent on behalf of the filmmakers and resumes Kingsman: The Secret Service quite well. From the start to bum-end (a cheeky wink to those who have seen the film), this high octane pastiche aims to merge Bond’s Roger Moore days with the violence and irreverence of Matthew Vaughn’s very own Kick Ass.
The plot, adapted from Mark Millar’s graphic novel, follows the aforementioned Harry Hart, code name Galahad. He decides to back a petty criminal, Eggsy (newcomer Taron Egerton), so that the latter may become a Kingsman.
What is Kingsman? An elite of sophisticated gentleman spies who describe themselves as the modern equivalent of the Knights of the Round Table.
Hart sponsors the street-smart whippersnapper out of a sense of duty, considering the young lad’s father was a former operative, one who saved Hart’s life during a botched mission several years previous. As Eggsy and several others are recruited to undergo the training process, the lisping Valentine, in true Bondian fashion, puts his nefarious plan into motion. He aims to use humanity’s enslavement to technology to provoke a world-wide cull. It’s up to the Kingsman to stop the madman… and to avoid Valentine’s blade-legged henchwoman Gazelle (Sofia Boutella), who isn’t ‘blade runner’ so much as ‘limb dismemberer’.
(That being said, Gazelle and the dubbed ‘blade runner’ Oscar Pistorius both seem to have a penchant for murder…)
All topical judiciary references aside, Kingsman: The Secret Service is a blast.
Director Vaughn and co-scribe Jane Goldman have a healthy appreciation for the genre they are pastiching and manage to tick the right boxes: cheeky one-liners, spy hierarchy (Michael Caine and Mark Strong both show up to play the equivalents of M and Q respectively) and utterly grotesque master plans.
However, while the influences are obvious, they update their throwback by striking the right balance between the cartoonish and being an energetic action romp on its own merit. The added frenetic pace, colourful language and anarchic ultraviolence all serve to make the oft-parodied genre seem quite fresh.
Some of the action scenes here will delight those who enjoy good shock value. Make no mistake: many audience members won’t believe what they get away with. The most impressive sequence is a church-based orgy of violence that sees the veteran Hart shoot, impale and immolate his way through a congregation of assailants. The rocket-fuelled sequence is brilliantly filmed in continuous takes, making it spectacularly OTT and at times surprisingly shocking.
Elizabeth Bennet wouldn’t believe her dainty peepers, Bridget Jones would brown her granny panties and audiences will never hear Lynyrd Skynyrd’s 'Free Bird' in the same way ever again.
While the general casting is spot on and the performances are all hugely entertaining, it is Colin Firth who shines brightly. He has the Harry Palmer glasses, the John Steed brolly and enough elegant swagger to make Bond lovers regret he was never given a shot as Fleming’s womanizing spy. The sight of the actor clearly having a blast and making the most of this against-type casting is the film’s biggest asset.
Many will rightfully argue that the 007 parodies have already been done to death. From 1967’s Casino Royale all the way to Austin Powers via Johnny English, the ludicrous plots, the silly gadgetry and the symptomatic sexism have all been diagnosed, dissected and derided.
However, it wasn’t just the invisible car that was thankfully retired when Jason Bourne administered a desperately needed pants-down spanking to the 007 franchise; a sense of camp fun was also abandoned. It is this that Vaughn and Goldman reclaim here, with added spunk.
While Kingsman: The Secret Service isn’t without its faults (Samuel L. Jackson is fun but the lispy routine gets old quick; the laddish humour towards the film’s denouement involving a Swedish princess who offers anal sex as a reward is a cheap laugh), the proceedings are all in keeping with the reference material, ie: the films which liked to “keep the British end up”.
The end result satisfies as a fitting post-modern tribute that packs a punch and has enough tongue in cheek humour and surprising beats to keep audiences solidly thrilled for its two-hour runtime.
If a franchise is in the cards, there’s plenty to be excited about.
- D - 19/02/15
A VALENTINE'S DAY SPECIAL:
THE 10 FILMS YOU SHOULD WATCH INSTEAD OF
50 SHADES OF GREY
Arousal is in the pants of the beholder.
Words to live by.
Indeed, and brilliantly, everyone is turned on by different things and the combinations are more-or-less infinite.
As you doubtlessly know, the big screen adaptation of thesaurus-deprived E.L. James’ erotic novel ‘50 Shades of Grey’ has been released. Having seen it, I can bluntly affirm without threat of contradiction that it is a dull and very tame adaptation. Sam Taylor-Johnson’s take fails to reclaim a transgressive impact of any kind and is embarrassingly incapable of dampening underwear or making pants grow.
For a film that’s selling itself as an erotic drama, that’s severely problematic.
In fact, more flusters can be felt while watching the TV shows Game of Thrones, Californication or even The Secret Diary of a Call Girl.
If you’re interested, here’s a link to the film review: 50 SHADES OF GREY REVIEW.
Now that the film has been found out as judgmentally insulting to the BDSM community (the books even more so), soft-core, deeply inept and a huge missed opportunity bordering on false advertising, here are the 10 films containing sex that you should see instead of 50 Shades of Grey.
(Just be glad I narrowed it down – as The Rabbit Hearted Girl would say: “Any film would do, David. Why ten?” *)
Well, ten because the focus is on films that actually pushed raunchy envelopes and had something to say.
These films don’t need to be salacious, gratuitous or even necessarily sexy – that is not what this list is about. It’s about superior films which tell erotically charged stories, made by people who understood that if a comedy should make you laugh and an action film should make you gasp, then a film including sex should turn you on in some way. AT THE VERY LEAST titillate or even provoke a spark.
(*: Incidentally, feel free to visit The Rabbit Hearted Girl’s excellent blog here: http://rabbitheartedgirl.weebly.com/ )
Considering my opening statement, this is of course a personal and non-extensive list – there will be omissions, so do stick around for the ‘honourable mentions’ at the end.
Here we go.
TOP 10 FILMS THAT NEED TO BE SEEN INSTEAD OF 50 SHADES OF GREY
10) CRUEL INTENTIONS (1999)
That’s right. When a film rated 15 in the UK trumps an 18-rated film centred on relationship including BDSM, you’ve failed.
No two ways about it.
This thinly veiled remake of Laclos’ ‘Dangerous Liaisons’ was released in 1999 and created quite a stir for adolescents at the time. The teen drama was oozing in innuendo, sex chat and showcased Sarah Michelle Gellar, Reese Witherspoon and Ryan Phillippe in their 90s prime.
A guilty pleasure though it may be, it is a well handled tale of seduction that succeeded in wetting the appetite of many a viewer.
Even to this day, for a mainstream flick, there are scenes of flirting and kissing which are more stirring than E.L. James’ wank fodder.
9) CRASH (1996)
No, not the twee, Oscar-pandering nonsense that shattered Brokeback Mountain’s rightful statuette dreams – this is David Cronenberg’s adaptation of J.G. Ballard’s 1973 novel of the same name.
It tells the disturbing tale of a group of individuals who have a certain type of paraphilia: autassassinophilia, that is to say the sexual arousal obtained by the risk of being killed. Their kink is specific to car accidents.
The film, brilliantly filmed by the master of body horror, is not meant to be sexy in any way but still draws you in, presenting a sub-culture which neither the author nor filmmaker demonizes.
Take notes, E.L. James.
Crash ends up as a disturbingly enthralling piece of cinema, one which tackles sexual arousal in a respectful and powerfully erotic way.
8) NYMPHOMANIAC (2013)
Here’s a prime example of how you can make a film about sex and not turn it into a porno, despite what people-who-clearly-haven’t-seen-the-film think.
Lars Von Trier’s 2-part opus is heavy going and tough to sit through in one sitting. However, in following the life of a self-confessed sex addict, the filmmaker managed to push the envelope and actually dare to put on screen certain graphic elements which never cross the line into gratuitous smut. Nymphomaniac never once uses sex for the purpose of cheap sensationalism, instead making it relevant to the story.
It is a flawed, ambitious and misunderstood film that strips sex of romance. It talks about sexuality in a frank and open manner. Crucially, it realistically depicts sadism (especially in the second part) and never affirms deeply insulting lies for the sake of box-office numbers such as coming on the first time, the frequency of simultaneous orgasms and the painless experiences of virgins, as both the '50 Shades' books and film assert.
7) EYES WIDE SHUT (1999)
Stanley Kubrick’s swansong is generally underrated and deserving of more praise.
Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman are at the core of this film about would-be betrayals, bottled-up sexual yearnings and pent-up jealousy.
The sex scenes are often steamy and always striking, blessed with Kubrick’s distinctive camera moves and use of space. The most memorable moments are the theatrical orgy, mixing ritualistic fucking and an ominously chanting score, but also the tense scene between Cruise and a prostitute he’s trying to seduce. The latter sequence is dripping with sexual intensity and yet his character cannot overcome his mental roadblocks… This is basically a film about Tom Cruise failing to get some.
Eyes Wide Shut is multi-layered, nuanced and strangely arousing film. It that shows sex within marriage can be the source of conflict and frustration, but also that sex can be felt when it’s not being watched or had, like a looming tension in the air.
6) Y TU MAMA TAMBIEN (2001)
Before wowing everyone with Children of Men and Gravity, director Alfonso Cuaron did some boundary-pushing of his own in a non-sci-fi genre.
This tale of two teenagers going on a road trip with an older woman is an impressive and believable love triangle, one which doesn’t shy away from depicting infatuation and sex in an uninhibited way.
Their flirting, drinking and drug-fuelled relationship culminates in a threesome that is superbly and explicitly shot. Rarely has sex been this watchable and believable on screen.
Classification boards went bezerk at the time, demeaning the film and reducing it to its sexual content.
However, Y Tu Mama Tambien remains a fantastic coming-of-age film that brilliantly explores sexuality. It has lost none of its impact or elegance.
5) BASIC INSTINCT (1992)
This unapologetically sexual thriller is not one to watch with the family. (None of these are, really.)
While many consider it to be a soft-core dud and only recall the most paused moment in movie history (the infamous leg-crossing interview scene), Paul Verhoeven’s classic is so much more.
Basic Instinct is the cornerstone when it comes to trashy erotic thrillers. This story of a detective investigating a crime and bedding the main suspect / manipulative femme fatale is very raunchy. It cemented Sharon Stone as the sex symbol for a generation and made all phallic kitchen utensils things to be feared.
The film as a whole is rather hollow compared to some of the other entries on this list. No one believes the steamy and melodramatic sex scenes or the OTT orgasms but it’s still hugely titillating; a lustful ride that unashamedly combines trashiness and B-movie tropes.
4) 9 1/2 WEEKS (1986)
This one is basically 50 Shades of Grey 30 years earlier.
While many tweens and frustrated housewives will get their panties in a twist over Sam Taylor-Johnson’s adaptation, 1986’s 9 ½ Weeks is actually worth it...ish.
See if this rings any bells:
A wealthy businessman hatches onto a vulnerable younger woman, making her play increasingly risqué sex games until it borders on emotional abuse.
Sound familiar? That’s because E.L. James blatantly saw 9 ½ Weeks one too many times and thought she could pen her own version.
Both Mickey Rourke and Kim Basinger create sparks in this raw film, acting circles around Johnson and Dornan. They manage to create an onscreen chemistry that culminates in that oft-parodied but hugely sensual scene in which Rourke’s character seduces the blindfolded Basinger with every food stuff he can find in the fridge.
50 Shades of Grey is nothing more than Adrian Lyne’s film with added paraphilia, less mediation on the psychological dimensions in a sexual relationship and less boundary pushing. Make no mistake: 9 ½ Weeks is no masterpiece but it took balls to release this at the time.
3) SHAME (2011)
Another film about sexual addiction…
This is considered by many (myself included) as Steve McQueen’s masterpiece. It is beautifully filmed, achingly real and powerfully moving portrait of a man dealing with his demons.
Brandon (Michael Fassbender) tries to change, especially with the arrival of his estranged sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan). The latter is a burden to herself and others, adding an extra layer of stress for her brother, who desperately tries to forge connections with others but is blocked by his compulsions.
The sex scenes in Shame are not as graphic as they may seem and while the director has outspokenly affirmed that he didn’t want the film to be sexy - the opposite would belittle the subject matter and the integrity of the project - the sexual tension is palpable at all times.
Rarely have films been this unflinching, subtle and this level of sexual without being sexy.
2) BLUE IS THE WARMEST COLOUR (2013)
Based on Julie Maroh’s graphic novel and directed by Abdellatif Kechiche, La Vie d’Adèle – Chapitres 1 et 2 (Blue Is The Warmest Colour) follows the story of Adèle (Adèle Exarchopoulos) and how this young student’s life is impacted by a chance encounter with blue-haired Emma (future Bond girl Léa Seydoux).
Kechiche’s study of love and desire via the meeting of two souls is utterly captivating. Every facet of the girls’ relationship is explored with such raw honesty (aided by close camera movements) to the point fascinating voyeurism. The incredibly intimate, intense and sometimes drawn-out sex scenes are a part of this and, no matter how subtle or explicit, show to what extent both actresses are believable, fearless and flawless.
Granted, some of the sex on show here borders on pornography but considering the integrity of the film and the fact it is a relationship saga, these scenes are necessary and compliment the raw emotions on show.
This daring and emotionally draining film cleverly addresses issues of gender and gay politics by making it less about a girl discovering her lesbianism and more about someone’s journey for happiness.
Sex serving the narrative and its emotional weight – eat your heart out, E.L.
1) SECRETARY (2002)
This oft-overlooked erotic romance is not one to miss.
Like 9 ½ Weeks, Secretary has a direct link with 50 Shades of Grey.
Once again, let’s see if this sounds familiar:
James Spader plays a wealthy lawyer called Mr. Grey. (Yes, you read that correctly. Mr. Grey.) He hires Maggie Gyllenhaal as his secretary. She plays an emotionally sensitive woman with social issues (close enough, even if Ana Steele’s characterization in the books makes her more akin to a spineless ingénue with the emotional definition of a Dido song). They embark upon a BDSM relationship.
Coincidence? Considering E.L. James, survey says… No.
Steven Shainberg‘s excellent indie gem explores the physical aspects of a relationship between a dominant and his submissive, as well as the psychological impact of their growing bond. It is subtly arousing, surprisingly funny and impressively heartfelt. Nothing is overegged, heavy-handed or insulting (Are you taking this down, E.L.?) and more is learnt about sadism and masochism here than in three novels and one full length film.
Secretary is quirky, bold and intelligently titillating. Do not miss it.
There we have it.
Considering choices had to be made in order to whittle the list down to 10, here are the next 10 films which out-do, out-class, out-everything 50 Shades of Grey:
* Larry Clark’s Ken Park, featuring unsimulated cunnilingus and penetration;
* Mike Nichols’ classic, The Graduate, which incidentally is name-checked in 50 Shades of Grey;
* The Wachowskis’ 1996 lesbian crime film Bound;
* Michael Haneke’s The Piano Teacher;
* Mike Nichols again, with the erotically-charged Closer, featuring Miss Portman stripping and fucking;
* While we’re ‘on’ Natalie Portman, the erotically-tinged Black Swan;
* PT Anderson’s porn industry odyssey Boogie Nights;
* The hilariously camp Showgirls;
* Wild Things, featuring Neve Campbell and Denise Richards getting freaky in a pool;
* Who Framed Roger Rabbit? … for obvious “I’m just drawn that way” reasons.
Michael Winterbottom’s 9 Songs and Virginie Despentes’ Baise Moi aren’t included because as explicit and sexual as they both are (featuring some impressive scenes of unstimulated sex), both films are as hollow as (but less insulting) 50 Shades of Grey. As for Last Tango in Paris, it’s overrated crap… and I can believe it’s not butter!
Here’s hoping you seek out the films included in the list above.
If you do decide to watch 50 Shades of Grey (please listen to your inner goddess and don’t bother with the books – it’s time I’ll never get back – read my book review if you’re curious: INTERVIEW OF E.L. JAMES), good for you. After all, the cardinal rule is and always will be: don’t talk about or criticise something you haven’t read or seen.
At best, the film might just broaden your sexual appetites or horizons… but it certainly won’t get you hot and bothered.
Thank you for reading.
Oh, and happy Valentine’s Day to all… or ‘Hooray For Manipulative and Arbitrary Single People Awareness Day’, as I have dubbed it. Catchy, n’est-ce pas?
- D - 14/02/15