Mad Max: Fury Road

George Miller resurrects Mad Max in a perfect storm of chaos and madness

Yeah, we got a little convoy, Ain't she a beautiful sight?
Yeah, we got a little convoy, Ain’t she a beautiful sight?

Imagine a blind man driving at ridiculous speeds in a custom made vehicle across the desert firing two machine guns into the distance, all the while laughing manically to the sound of Verdi’s Dies Irae. That scene in your mind (it’s also in the film) is the quintessence of Mad Max: Fury Road, an explosively loud, unstoppably fast, and relentlessly aggressive movie – and also one of the best actions films of the decade. It opens with a chase sequence and doesn’t slow down, speeding along at a lightning pace, and even when it offers brief respite it feels more like a pit stop to the longest cat and mouse in cinema, one guaranteed to have your heart rate up by the time the credits roll.

All this takes place in the vast desert of a brilliantly realized post-apocalyptic Australia, the remaining settlements separated by miles of emptiness, and each being inhabited by a different sort of gang or clan. The story starts in the Citadel, home to the main antagonist Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne, who also played the bad guy in the first Mad Max) and his faction, the War Boys, who paint themselves chalk white and are generally pretty obsessed with their leader, to the point of deification. They actually remind me a lot of the Psychos from Borderlands, but there is a slightly darker side to their nature beneath the full throttle of the action, that being they (and it would seem most other humans in this film) are not cleanly born and only live “half-lives” – Nux (Nicholas Hoult), one of the more important War Boys in the story, for example, has two visible tumours (and has drawn little smiley faces on them). That’s not to forget that they are all, for the most part, totally insane. If due to whatever illness they are plagued by or the near religious cult they have been born into, these guys can get pretty unsettling to watch in certain scenes, especially when they use what seems to be an amphetamine of some kind to give them one last suicidal kick before doing whatever they have to do to please [almighty] Joe, but it all works very well with the vision Miller clearly had in directing this film.

A Mad Max of few words
A Mad Max of few words

And what a vision it is – after Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron) betrays Joe in stealing a precious cargo he calls in reinforcements from the nearby Gas Town and Bullet Farm, the leader of the first is afflicted with an extreme form of lymphedema and wears a aged suit, and the latter has a wig made of bullets and drives a car modded to use tank treads. These are the kind of bad guys who stand out, especially next to Joe in his translucent armour covered in military medals complimented by his toothy mask and disheveled hair, these aren’t generic villains to be forgotten the next day, like most of the film, they’ll stick in your mind for a while to come. They also don’t come with a needless sob story (this is an action film, come on), they’re just full on bad and each have some pretty sinister scenes to reinforce that.

The design of the antagonists is just touching on the creative direction the film takes, a post-apocalyptic madcap world that is just about physical enough to believe – when a War Boy jumps on a rig using a stop sign as a shield, or when you notice one of the vehicles used is a modded Mercedes, it pulls it just enough in the real world to remind us it’s not total fantasy, but not so much to remove us from its madness. One particularly cool detail is, at the back of the bad guy convoy there’s a guy standing in front of a huge stack of amps (loaded on the top of some kind of vehicle of course) shredding a double necked guitar for the entirety of the film, when he’s nearby at least. The guitar is also a flamethrower. Rock on, mystery flamethrower guitarist, rock on.

Charlize Theron is arguably the main character of the film, despite the title
Charlize Theron is arguably the main character of the film, despite the title

On that musical note, Junkie XL provides a suiting soundtrack to the chaos that ensues on screen, featuring plenty of powerful bass notes on strings on brass, occasionally complimented by some electric guitar which all in all works very well, though it isn’t particularly outstanding otherwise. JXL’s work with Zimmer has obviously rubbed off a bit as this has a lot of his trademark sounds going on (particulary the emphasis of keeping the melody in the bass), but this is by no means a bad thing. The sound otherwise is also excellent, with explosions and whatnot all giving suitable impact, and the car engines growling like the monsters they are. The cinematography and set pieces are also incredibly well done, wide angle shots catching all the action from a distance, then zooming in to see the gory detail as two rigs collide into one another (or whatever mechanical mash up you prefer, most of them are featured at some point). One interesting choice was to zoom in suddenly to the gear stick when it was pushed into nitro (that is probably not the correct term, read: very fast mode) signifying ludicrous speed. In another film I could see that being ridiculously cheesy, but Miller’s direction and editing seems to have pulled it off, simply adding the kinetic energy that’ll overwhelm any viewer (in a good way).

It also doesn’t surprise me that there were over 450 hours of footage filmed before principal photography ended – the scale of the set pieces and the angles used must have required a ridiculous amount of retakes, but it payed off, especially due to the fact most of the effects used appear to be physical rather than CGI, with the cars (and so on) all being real and most explosions too, the only section being CGI heavy would be when they all drive into a huge sandstorm, for obvious reasons. This again grounds the insanity in reality, and aids immersion. That said, I wouldn’t discount the post-production at work here, as it has clearly had a lot of work to add to the tone and colour featured, ensuring continuity in the look Miller set out to create.

Immortan Joe is definitely the bad guy
Immortan Joe is definitely the bad guy

Last (but certainly not least) is the acting talent, and I wouldn’t hesitate to place Charlize Theron in the leading role for this film – though Max does feature in most of the action, his silent but violent routine only lends itself to so much storytelling (that’s not to say I’d want a talkative Max, I think Hardy did an excellent job reprising Mel Gibson’s role), whereas Furiosa has a more interesting journey to go on, and it’s ultimately her story being told, not to mention that Theron delivers an excellent performance throughout.. There was some uproar about there being a leading female in a ‘boy’s film’ (I don’t know why either), but Mad Max actually exceeds expectations in terms of featuring both genders – the Bechdel test will have been passed many times here due to its strong female supporting cast (and also because Mad Max doesn’t really talk too much), which is a nice change to see in the action genre. Nux, as played by Nicholas Hoult, is also an interesting character as he allows us insight into the other side of the playing field, and Hoult portrays his innocent madness at the same high standard that the other actors exhibit. In terms of the story it isn’t very dense, but then it isn’t meant to be. Action films sometimes build themselves stories far too convoluted for their own good (remember that film where the trade federation blockaded a former trading partner threatening their monopoly? Yeah that was The Phantom Menace), so this is a refreshingly simple deal, though the world in which it is sent is slightly more nuanced with a remarkable level of detail and world-building which make it feel very alive beyond the story itself.

Mad Max: Fury road is one hell of a ride, almost non-stop and at its best, some of the best spectacle in modern cinema. Some have said it values style over substance, and though some of the latter is hidden away in the corners of the world Miller has created, they would otherwise be correct. But that’s not bad thing when the style’s as good as this, the visuals alone could almost carry the film through single-handily and it is a pleasure to watch, although you might feel exhausted by the time it’s over (but again, in a good way). George Miller has kicked Mad Max back into gear, and if it gets sequels anywhere close to this one, it’s gonna be a good time for action movies.

9/10

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Birdman

Surreal as it gets, but It’ll make you believe a man can fly

The conflict between Norton and Keaton’s characters is particularly entertaining

This is the strangest superhero movie ever made. Or perhaps the most bizarre psychological thriller. Maybe the subtlest black comedy in recent years? Alejandro González Iñárritu’s latest release, Birdman, is a tough one to hold down. It stars Micheal Keaton as Riggan Thomson, a once Hollywood superstar (of the fictional Birdman comic book films) now trying to amend his reputation by adapting, directing and starring in a play of Raymond Carver’s short story, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. But to put a slight twist on matters, it seems like Riggan may well have superpowers. Maybe. He can move things with his mind, levitate, even fly, or so we’re led to believe, in a strange and ambiguous side-plot that has Riggan battle his internal alter-ego – Birdman. This was the very character he was once world famous for depicting, now haunting Riggan’s mind with a Batman-esque growl. But whether any of it is real or not, you’ll believe it all the same, especially in the dream-like sections where Keaton’s character is soaring through the sky to the sound of Rachmaninoff’s second symphony, viewing which can only be described as unadulterated cinematic joy.

Keaton’s tour de force is not unaccompanied, Emma Stone and Edward Norton (playing Sam and Mike respectively) support his performance in equal degree, both characters well realized in the dichotomous world in which the movie is set. Sam is a washed out druggy who can’t help but be “special”, Mike is an actor who can only find reality on the stage, and these of course orbit the contrast of Riggan and Birdman, at the centre of the film. Lindsay Duncan’s small, but well acted, role as a critic who cannot appreciate art only supports this further, though the film’s jab at critics in general make it a somewhat ironic to review (maybe I should give it a 1! Hah, that’ll show them…) Zach Galifianakis’ portrayal of Riggan’s friend and Lawyer, Brandon, is also notably impressive, evidencing Galifianakis’ skills as an actor expand beyond the comedy he is known for, and though I was unsure at first, his part is a welcome addition to the film. The relationship between Sam and Riggan also develops interestingly – Sam being his daughter who, during the heyday of the Birdman films, was ignored and let down by her father, thus driving her to drugs and so on. In order to solve not only his artistic career but his family too, Riggan takes her on as an assistant, but in attempts to tackle these old issues he exacerbates his already problematic anxiety.

Lights, camera, (and a few more lights)
Lights, camera, (and a few more lights)

But the brilliant acting is only the tip of the iceberg for Birdman. One of the most interesting artistic decisions in the film was to make it as if it were one, long continuous shot. Throughout the entirety of the film there are almost no direct cuts, the vast majority cleverly masked with visual trickery as to retain a flow nearly uninterrupted. The effect of this? A very immersive experience – it feels almost as if you are with the characters, seeing everything from one perspective – your own. The cinematography should then be sub-par, expectantly, due to this decision, right? Not at all. Clever manipulation of the camera allows it to always get to where it needs to be, in such a way that it doesn’t even feel like the single-shot aesthetic is being forced, rather an incredibly natural method of filmmaking. One trick I noticed was to employ mirrors as an alternative angle in a scene, allowing the audience to see something from a different angle, or something behind the camera, without cutting to it, and this, again, does not feel forced. This is helped by the expert performances by the actors, allowing long continuous shots (known to be very difficult to pull off well) to be used often, with the acting probably more akin to theatre than the usual quick cut movie, which would allow for multiple reshots of certain sequences and so forth. Purely on a technical level, the acting and cinematography already rank this film very highly.

Beyond the visual, Birdman also excels in the aural, with a fantastic original score by Antonio Sanchez – entirely composed of jazz drumming. Though one might assume that this might strip the soundtrack of some depth, the rhythmic and primal drumming accompanies it very well, the fast and complex beat speeding the pace of the movie (which generally moves as fast as the camera can go) to reach new heights. This too is accompanied by the occasional classical piece, Rachmaninoff’s second symphony being the obvious highlight, opening with a tenuous flute then joined by swelling strings, and augmented by clear brass. The beauty of the second movement (the one used) is only exaggerated by the onscreen action, this particular scene being the aforementioned flying section. But back to the soundtrack – it is in fact cleverly hidden within the film. Now how is a soundtrack hidden? By making it diegetic. That drumming in the background? It’s being played by that drummer on the street. That classical piece? Part of the play’s soundtrack that we can overhear. And I suppose you can guess why Riggan runs by a marching band at one point. This again aids with the naturalistic tone of the film – we are made to feel like we are there, rather that watching from afar, and despite the ludicrous happenings throughout, it makes it all the more believable.

Galifianakis takes on a more serious role, it goes better than expected

Moving back to the centre of the film, Riggan’s personal conflict is also echoed in the overriding social commentary featured. As his alter-ego tries to lure him back to the world of being a hit superstar, the new theatrical world he finds himself in rejects him for ever being part of that world. Iñárritu crafts a two-pronged criticism here, firstly of the world of Hollywood, and its endless sequels (Riggan’s last film was Birdman 3) and mindless explosions, taking advantage of the lowest common denominator to sell tickets whilst lacking any real substance. Yet at the same time, this world offers Riggan the fame he may still lust after despite trying to make himself a more respected artist – this may also reference the fact that old washed up action movie stars (I’m looking at you Stallone) are now making movies again just as they used to, without much meaning or purpose. The other side of Birdman tackles the opposite, the toxic elitism rife in theatre and the so-called ‘high arts’, where they look down on those that might seemingly be below them, and see qualifications before talent. The fact Riggan may dare enter the world of theatre seems to offend everyone before they have even seen his play. But this all adds to both his character and the movie overall – he is caught in between these two extremes as a Hollywood star in theatre, and though one could consider this the happy middle, it also looks as if it’s driving him insane. A cry for relevance and fame, or a genuine attempt at art? It’s left ever ambiguous, and is the structural basis the entire picture is painted on.

Birdman is, taking all this into consideration, a wonderful film. It ties genres together and manages to offer the viewer something both watchable and thought provoking, enjoyable (and at many times laugh out loud funny) yet with substance behind its wacky story. This coupled with its fantastically unique framing style and soundtrack, makes for a film you won’t soon forget and, for me at least, a new favourite. So if you’re into movies with great acting, top notch characters, interesting cinematography, sublime sound design, and all the rest (with equally impressive adjectives), watch Birdman. It’s really very good.

10/10

Godspeed You! Black Emperor – Asunder, Sweet and Other Distress

Trendsetters of the post-rock genre, this is Godspeed’s most unique album yet

It almost looks like it sounds

A band can’t stay safe forever. The post-rock outfit Godspeed You! Black Emperor has released some of the most influential material of the genre since 1997 and, since reforming three years ago, has retained its characteristic style – long movements of build-up and tremolo-fueled crescendos, dark and atmospheric,  with an almost pseudo-anarchistic personality, and distinctive, chamber-influenced instrumentation that has paved the way for an entire “third wave” of post-rock. But it seems that fans are two-sided on their latest album, ‘Asunder, Sweet and Other Distress. This is Godspeed’s biggest evolution in the genre yet – while all their previous material showed different styles, with some being darker than others, this feels like almost a completely different band, but is still 100% Godspeed all the way through. So what are the fans fretting about?

The first thing fans will realize is that the album is only forty minutes long – by far their shortest album, and almost as short their lauded EP, Slow Riot for New Zero Kanada. Its bite-size nature makes it more ideal in terms of replayability, but for a band used to making 60+ minute epics, it can leave you wanting for more. Another thing more dedicated fans will recognize is that Asunder is essentially a studio version of an around forty-minute piece often played live by the band, known unofficially as Behemoth, split into four tracks. Luckily, it’s a great translation into the studio environment, with Menuck and Amar and co’s legendary Hotel2Tango production enhancing the atmosphere of the drones and bringing out far more “crunch” in the album’s more powerful moments.

Did I say drones? Because there’s a lot of drone in Asunder, and probably its most defining feature. Godspeed are no stranger to drones, often complemented with field recordings and interviews to add a greater dark ambience to the band’s nihilistic (and, in the case of F#A# Infinity, post-apocalyptic) music. But here, they truly embrace the drone genre, which can be off-putting to the more casual fan. The first track, Peasantry, or ‘Light! Inside of Light!’ feels much like the later works of Earth, who essentially created drone metal, with its heavily Morricone-influenced country-tinged mixture of melodies and drone. Another noteworthy feature of this track is that it does away with the slow build-up common in post-rock, including (and especially) Godspeed’s prior albums. Unlike the ever-increasing walls of percussion of Allelujah’s Mladic, the faint bursts of guitar ambience of Yanqui’s 9-15-00, the French horns of Skinny Fists’ Storm, or the bitter poetry of F#A# Infinity’s Dead Flag Blues, the album starts out with powerful drums followed by an equally powerful, droning noise. Throughout the album, Godspeed have replaced many of  the crescendos and suspense with drone and intensity, perhaps a controversial change.

Fans will be pleased to know that Godspeed's 'Behemoth' translates well to a studio environment
Fans will be pleased to know that Godspeed’s ‘Behemoth’ translates well to a studio environment

Following this comes fifteen minutes of pure drone with the album’s next two tracks – Lambs’ Breath and Asunder, Sweet. Consisting of over a third of the album’s material, this will indeed put off the listeners who loved the intensity of the opening track. Lamb’s Breath’s first half consists of massive fuzzy bass akin to the likes of Sunn O))) or the early works of Boris, while its last half is more ambient-influenced, consisting of light guitar feedback. Asunder, Sweet is the better of the two drone tracks, with more atmospheric implementation of the genre akin to the likes of Tim Hecker’s noisier works; a beautiful marriage between atonal guitar feedback and strings. Asunder concludes with one of Godspeed’s best tracks to date – the incredible fourteen minute Piss Crowns are Trebled, which takes the album’s new direction and suddenly transforms it into a piece that replicates the band’s works from the 90s, particularly Slow Riot’s BBF3. The exquisite chord progressions, polyrhythms and arrangement of instruments result in a two-movement piece, one focusing on melody, the other on apocalyptic bleakness and fury. It has to be heard to be believed, and will easily be a fan favourite for those even driven off by the other tracks.

To conclude, it can be easy to see why this album is so polarizing – with such a massive leap forward in approach and substituting most of the crescendos with a more straightforward, no-nonsense 40-minute album, Asunder is sure to split the fans of the band. However, to the more open-minded listener, this is some of their strongest work yet. It’s better than Godspeed’s comeback album, ‘Allelujah, where the drone pieces felt more like interludes for their greater products rather than being as truly fleshed out and matured like Asunder’s, and rivals the likes of Yanqui and F#A# Infinity. While the album has its flaws, especially in terms of structure, this is still a great achievement in Godspeed’s almost flawless history.

8/10

Guest-written by Magdi

Nightcrawler

Jake Gyllenhaal stars in this psychological thriller set in the heart of Los Angeles

The film employs a neo-noir aesthetic effectively throughout
The film employs a neo-noir aesthetic effectively

Nightcrawler is director Dan Gilroy’s debut on the big screen, and he’s made quite an entrance. It tells the story of Louis, acted by Jake Gyllenhaal, a former thief who becomes a crime journalist, or more accurately, chases crimes to film the gory aftermath – selling whatever he gets to a local news station. As someone who seemed initially lost in direction, Louis takes to this with concerning vigour and manages to quickly rise in reputation among both the newscasters and his peers, seeking larger and deadlier crimes. As it goes, this would be a fairly interesting synopsis for any film, but it is Gyllenhaal’s masterful performance as Louis that pushes this film one notch up – his blank, placid stare, his unnatural interaction, and almost inhuman amorality together create a creepy atmosphere, consistently unsettling throughout.

This psychotic performance is supported well by Rene Russo and Riz Ahmed, who play Nina and Rick respectively, the former a morning news director at the news station and the latter Louis’ assistant. Both manage to showcase different elements of Louis’ character, revealing that beyond the very thin veil of humanity there lies a very dangerous man, but he enchants them both with his strange skills and the promise of more, with a fair bit of manipulation on the side. In one particular scene, Louis is telling Nina how he loved to learn from the internet, and as the conversation plays out it seems more and more that even his most basic interactions are learnt from somewhere artificial – that he lacks something innately human, and Russo’s very organic acting creates a tenable contrast between the two.

Morality isn't a big deal to Louis
Morality isn’t a big deal to Louis

Perhaps the most impressive feature of the movie is its neo-noir aesthetic, beautifully framing Los Angeles in day and night, and complimenting the themes and feel of the film efficiently without fail. This, too, is augmented by James Newton Howard’s soundtrack, its ambient guitars and spacey tones setting and reinforcing the mood onscreen. Though it dips and wavers, at its best it could be considered one of Howard’s more interesting soundtracks, and even if the various soundscapes work more as accompaniment than standalone musical pieces, noticing a soundtrack mid-film without being distracted by it is often the note of its strength (a la Drive).

Overall, Nightcrawler is a thrilling, if alarming, story that retains a strong pace and constantly ups the ante, resulting in a fantastic sequence towards the end which could almost belong in a Bourne movie (and I mean this as positively as I can), and yet even then does not compromise the constant sense of being on edge whenever Louis is onscreen. If Drive was the former benchmark for the neo-noir genre, Nightcrawler is definitely the new one.

9/10

Avengers: Age of Ultron

An entertaining, if messy, Avenging adventure

He's cuter than he looks
Ultron, played by James Spader, is all fun and games

From the get-go the film throws its viewership straight into the action (where we remain for the most part), weaving through an intensely choreographed fight scene trying as it might to feature each of its heroes in equal measure.  There’s Captain America throwing his shield, Thor spinning his hammer, Hulk smashing, and so on, typically showing off the team ‘on a good day’ (climaxing at a particularly exciting slow motion shot of said team leaping into the fray). This high octane pace rarely slows, and though the action sequences often feel very crowded, they still manage to be enjoyable rather than overwhelming, even if it’s more difficult to watch the individual heroes doing their thing as in the first Avengers film.

The film is, of course, centered around the titular character – Ultron, derived with some jiggery-pokery from Loki’s staff (yep, that old thing), he is an AI gone wrong, unable to tell the difference between destroying humanity and saving it (peace either way, right?). But if you were expecting evil death robot #232 think again, this Ultron isn’t so much doom and gloom as hitting off one liners at a similar rate to the protagonists, James Spader masterfully voicing him as another character rather than a malfunctioning droid. Of course, with this it can be argued that he loses much of his menace, being more of a comedy bad guy than a legitimate threat (not helped by the fact he gets bashed around by the protagonists constantly), but considering the amount of emotionless world-ending antagonists we get in robotic form, it’s quite refreshing to have one with a personality.

Bustin’ Hulks since ’94

Two other new characters are introduced in the film as well, Wanda and Pietro Maximoff, played by Eizabeth Olsen and Aaron Taylor-Johnson respectively. They are known more recognizably as Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver (“He’s fast and she’s weird”, as it was put in the film), who bring an interesting dynamic as two ‘enhanced’ (saying mutant  is punishable by death, as made clear by multiple contracts between Fox and Marvel) people capable of fighting the Avengers with a more varied set of skills (as fun as a living Iron Man suit big bad robot is…), Scarlet Witch using her ‘mind control’ power to induce a dream state on several of the protagonists, creating a very memorable sequence.

However, Age of Ultron is definitely not without its flaws, these mainly revolving around a somewhat messy and disjointed story. Though it can be felt in some of the more chaotic fight scenes, this lack of cogency is exemplified by a certain section wherein Thor flies off and does something almost totally irrelevant to the main plot, with little to no explanation, resulting in nothing more than sequel baiting while the rest of the film carried on. This contrasts deeply with the first Avengers film, which was focused and clear throughout, while this film feels very much like it has strings attached (whatever Ultron may have you believe…), those being the various stories of the Marvel Universe and the overarching build up to the inevitable films that will follow. That said, the small momentum lost by such asides is not overly painful and they are quickly forgotten as soon as the main plot gets back onscreen.

Captain America’s costume gets a much needed redesign this time ’round

Interestingly for a movie that barely stops for breath, some of the slower and less action-packed parts are in fact the highlights, both very funny and offering character development which is usually a rarer find in superhero movies. Aside from the one-liners, Whedon manages to create some interesting character dynamics, be it Robert Downey Jr. and Mark Ruffalo’s “mad scientist” duo as Tony Stark and Bruce Banner, or perhaps more interestingly Banner and Black Widow’s (Scarlett Johansson) romantic sub-plot, which at times touches on more mature themes than a Marvel film is used to. Yet despite all this, the star of the show in terms of character development may well be the much maligned Hawkeye (played by Jeremy Renner), who spent most of the first movie as a brainwashed zombie type fella, and was otherwise a seemingly superfluous member of the team picking off a few bad guys with a bow and arrow of all things. This time Hawkeye gets a fair bit of screen time and uses it well (even picking up on the absurdity of, not only the plot, but the fact he has a bow), and it seems likely he’ll be a fan favourite from here on in.

All in all, Age of Ultron is a huge film. Unlike its predecessor it spans four continents, giving it a truly global feel, and is so jam packed with heroes and villains it almost splits at its seams (the planned extended home release suggests there is even more, if that can be believed). And though it might be ‘a bit much’ at times, it offers spectacle so far unmatched in Marvel’s cinematic outings, and blow for blow probably exceeds the first Avengers film in terms of enjoyment – even if Marvel’s future offerings only reach as high as this movie manages, we’re still in for a treat.

8/10