Mad Max: Fury Road ****


For sheer spectacle’s sake, a trip to the rebooted Mad Max for 2015 that’s Fury Road is worth the ticket price alone – even in 2D (which this press screening was). Although there are great planes of desert landscape, writer-director George Miller ‘confines’ us in an even more sinister world than before then attacks our senses on all fronts. As its name suggests, Fury Road like an angry virtual reality experience, a never-ending chase scene with no respite or ‘safe ground’ in sight, all post-apocalyptic terror, but even more frightening as there appears to be no destination in sight.

Rebel Max Rockatansky (Tom Hardy reprising Mel Gibson’s iconic role) is caught by the sickly War Boys of Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne) and used by one, Nux (Nicholas Hoult), as his personal, portable blood bank. The War Boys’ world is one where petrol and water are vital currency. When one of their own, tanker driver Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron) absconds with Joe’s wives – one of which is pregnant and expected to bear a healthy baby (played by Rosie Huntington Whiteley), the War Boys go after Furiosa and her load. Furiosa’s goal is reaching her former childhood home across the desert landscape, her route to survival, with lush greenery – and hope of civilisation.

Fury Road uber-hypes all that is common to the other Mad Max films tenfold, from intense, thundering chase sequences and pure insanity (metallic face-painting moments) to a sense of paranoia and despair. Watching the War Boys in action is like watching Duracell bunnies in overdrive, a near exhausting but utterly fascinating choreography as they plough forward to catch their targets. This is all propelled by a heavy-metal presence on screen of a guitar player/flame-thrower and drummers as they go into battle. This power is a complete contradiction to the War Boys general malaise, all sickly white and tumour-ridden but still as tough as steel.

In contrast, Theron as shaven-headed Furiosa – a determined, warrior/Terminator-like Alpha female similar to Ripley in Aliens – seems the healthiest of the bunch, as do the four ethereal wives that pose against the desert landscape, looking like a supermodel centrefold for Vogue beachwear. Theron steals the show, and there is some vague resemblance of character arcs as we go on their perilous journey with them.

A gruff Hardy channels, physically and mentally, his Bronson and Bane characteristics into Max – especially the latter in the metal mask, grunting and sneering and using his bulk to depict his mood and needs. His Max isn’t as insane in the devilish sense as Gibson’s was, and he seems more solid and cumbersome. He also has a ‘transformation’ in spirit – complete with a tender but clumsy moment, though it’s hard to say whether this is character building or a moment of weakness.

Hoult’s character Nux is also intriguing, like some present-day, impressionable, young jihadi wanting to reach paradise in Valhalla. The striking similarities to current events, including the fight over amenities like fuel is a chilling reminder to us all – if you can get past the head-thumping soundtrack and circus-styled action for a moment (there IS downtime, so breathe). There is so much going on, perhaps too much to process that any criticism lies in needing knowledge of the previous Mad Max saga and their existence to begin to piece together snippets of what kind of ‘human’ society remains on Joe’s rocky pad post Apocalypse.

All in all, Mad Max: Fury Road is complete rush of the senses and has some of the most exhausting action pieces in a very long time, combined with some mind-blowing design and cinematography to keep you transfixed – or pinned – in your seat. Note: it’s not necessary to pay the 3D ticket price either. Fury Road is based on the original concept as the previous films – maybe decades later – but just uses more present-day cinematic trickery to put you firmly in the escaping driving seat. As a result, Mad Max the character becomes almost a sideshow to the film’s juggernaut momentum. If that’s still acceptable for fans, Fury Road will thrill the living daylights out of you.

4/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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Big Game **


Every kid’s fantasy at some point in their childhood is saving the day from the evils of the world, without necessarily donning the superhero cape. Big Game from Rare Exports director Jalmari Helander is a cheesy, old-fashioned action flick in the Die Hard vein aimed squarely at the younger audience. It also taps into traditional – in this case, Finnish – values that can get left behind in the tech-centric world of today’s youth.

The main issue with Big Game is it feels fairly lightweight when you cut out the action sequences, and with the price of a family cinema ticket today, this is a big cause for concern in recommending it. The irony is, what with Helander’s great sweeping vistas of ‘Finnish’ forest (filmed in Germany), it is designed to be watched on a big screen.

Samuel L Jackson plays the President of the United States onboard Air Force One on route to a G8 Summit. After terrorists shoot the plane from the sky, first disabling its defences with the help from an inside man, the President lands in an NASA-style escape pod in the snowy Finnish wilderness. He is found by young Finn, 13-year-old Oskari (Onni Tommila) who is on a rights-of-passage hunt to kill his first stag deer. Oskari doesn’t know who he’s rescued but agrees the get the President to safety. They soon find out that the inside man and the terrorists are hunting the President as a trophy. Undeterred, Oskari realises he has a new mission in coming of age.

Writer-director Helander has his tongue firmly in cheek here – no surprise after the more serious-natured Rare Exports, just having some fun with his miniature hero. Things are very black and white, good and bad, and dumbed down to the point of patronisation, only rescued by the like-ability – and quaint ignorance of wider world issues – of Oskari. There are the common coming-of-age themes that the teens will latch onto. Tommila is a convincing starlet with a stoic resolve as the mini action hero which you can’t fault him on.

Jackson earns one of his easiest pay-checks yet – albeit with a bit of physical exertion, with his President being the complete opposite to Harrison Ford’s have-a-go President Marshall in Air Force One. Jackson resigns himself to the elements and a small boy with a bow and local know-how. Admittedly, for the younger generation, this is an exhilarating though that a powerful adult figure is taking orders from them.

Even enjoyable turns from Brit actors Ray Stevenson and Jim Broadbent as US secret service personnel – the latter with oddest American accent going – fail to inject greater buzz, though German actor Mehmet Kurtulus makes quite a sinister baddie as terrorist Hazar.

There are some thrilling escape scenes on a knife edge too, like the use of a chest freezer as a getaway vehicle, and the President and Oskari have fun bonding then running, then repeating this. That’s about the long and short of the thin plot that sounds appealing on paper.

Big Game aims big in action and heart-felt fun but is lacking in anything else. It has solid values on offer and is a great advert for simple living and visiting Finland’s countryside for ‘the oldies’ watching. Whether it justifies a family cinema outing because it feels ‘half empty’ in substance is the big question. After all, today’s 13-year-old has a raft of superhero films with all kinds of layered theories and back stories at the box office to choose from, so its retro content may not be enough to fully satisfy.

2/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

Spooks: The Greater Good ***


Ol’ Harry (Peter Firth) is back in this film spin-off of the BBC TV series – a comfort factor for fans. Titled Spooks: The Greater Good, fans can also be reassured that the film is not trying to be a glossy version of its small-screen self, rather in-keeping in style and still ‘very British’ in manner. There are no Jason Bournes here.

After a high-level threat, terrorist Qasim (Elyes Gabel) absconds from an MI5 escort in London in an elaborate rescue mission, the American Secret Service questions MI5’s future value, and the blame sits squarely with MI5 Intelligence Chief Harry. He smells a rat from upper brass and disappears off the radar – later thought to be in league with Qasim and co, revealing top-level information. The powers-that-be (played by  Tim McInnerny and Jennifer Ehle) hire decommissioned MI5 agent Will Holloway (Kit Harington) – Harry’s former protégé – to find the AWOL spook, and in turn, stop any more terror incidences happening in London.

As it stands, The Greater Good is a perfectly serviceable piece of spy drama that revels in its London setting – never missing a beat to show off a London landmark. The UK’s love of CCTV paints part of the picture here too. Naturally, it still has to keep up with the Bournes of this world. The action sequences are less stylish (and less costly) though, with Harington jumping off facades around Southbank like a parkour fanatic, or going as far as Berlin with one lead.

Firth is naturally thrilling in his deadpan delivery, crossing and double crossing every player, which is what keeps the storyline ticking along – that, and the editing and a sense of impending doom n’ gloom. The camp factor is injected by McInnerny as the agency’s chief who you expect to crack into Darling giggles at any second in his face-to-face confrontations. Ehle has little to play with, stuck mainly in a glass ‘cage’ making high-level decisions.

At least the youngsters get out and about, with a determined Tuppence Middleton as spook June giving Harington’s Will a runaround for his money. Harington is sometimes deemed as a one-trick pony, but his (as of yet) ‘limited acting range’ seems to suit him admirably here, as he has to play his cards close to his chest as a frustrated Will in dealing with Harry.

Spooks: The Greater Good is the ultimate extended TV episode, and though it’s bogged down by clunky scripting and overly forced dialogue, it has it’s delicious little gibes between characters, with Firth coming out the champion of the lot. It’s still early days to judge Harington in such a role but it’s by far a positive step in the right direction since Testament of Youth.

3/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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Unfriended ***


Making a 90-minute horror film set within the confines of a computer screen sounds like a challenge, especially one trying to replicate the tired ‘found footage’ theme and scare the living daylights out of you. Unfriended by director Levan Gabriadze and screenwriter Nelson Greaves does just this, not necessarily feeding off the visual chills its cluttered windows pop up to reveal, but that foreboding sense of lack of control in the online world, where innocent acts can turn ugly and destructive in a split second.

After attractive pupil Laura Barns (Heather Sossaman) gets drunk and passes out in an ungracious fashion, a video of her antics is posted online, triggering an online hate campaign that eventually ends in tragedy. Her school friends regularly meet in online chat room Skype, until a mystery caller enters their group chat one evening to haunt – and taunt – them through their dead friend’s account.

Unfriended plays to an online generation, many of who conduct their everyday lives through social media on a device screen – and it’s clever in this sense, placing a socially accepted existence in jeopardy using the horror genre. Another smart thing the film does is play out the dangers of putting everything online that may come back to haunt you. Whether this warning sticks with some after watching, long enough before that itch for some social media interaction is anyone’s guess, but there is a strong message of ‘be responsible’ for what you make public, without taking the moral high ground.

The film is like ‘The Digital Blair Witch Project’, using the standard distorted images of scared young faces, lit by torch light – or screen light here, and helpless screams of terror. What it also does to initially heighten tension is mix real-time pauses with frantic on-screen activity and mood music tracks to give a very genuine sense of the lead character’s emotional state at any one moment. Ironically, that lead is called ‘Blaire’ (commendably played by Shelley Hennig), perhaps in honour of the 1999 film, her fate predictably sealed last as we need her screen functioning for there to be a film.

Meanwhile, the course of Unfriended unfolds just like any other in the genre, with each caller picked off one by one. The only thrill is correct-guessing who’s next from each character’s fears, neurosises or unattractive traits. Indeed character richness is thin on the ground, and Unfriended fails prey to playing to type (the beauty, the jock and the nerd etc). However, the online activity is virtually non-stop and covers up this fact. There is also an engagement in watching exactly how to cope with each online threat that pops up – educational for those who aren’t social savvy.

Unfriended offers some half-decent scares inside a rather claustrophobic environment, with the usual sacrifice of attractive teens. Unsurprisingly, it’s not unique in that sense. What is noteworthy is taking the social media platforms’ functionality and accentuated sounds to trigger its suspense. In this respect, Unfriended grabs and retains our curiosity.

3/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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