Help, help, here come the bears

 

(c) Regency Enterprises / 20th Century Fox

 

The other night I finally got around to watching The Revenant, which won Oscars at the recent 88th Academy Awards for its leading man Leonardo DiCaprio, its director Alejandro G. Iñárritu and its cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki.  But I must confess that I didn’t watch it because of the fact that it won a slew of Oscars, or for that matter a slew of Golden Globes and BAFTAs too.  Nor did I watch it for its spectacular filming locations in Canada and Argentina, nor for its majestic musical score by Ryuichi Sakamoto, nor for the large amounts of technical talent and effort that, generally, went into its making.

 

No, I watched The Revenant because I wanted to see a grizzly bear tear a new asshole in the star of Titanic (1998).

 

Mind you, when the much-anticipated scene arrived and serious bear-abuse was inflicted on the man who’d helped the soppiest film in history break box-office records around the world, I didn’t enjoy it as much as I’d expected.  Probably this was because I felt upset about the bear.  Because it transpired that the bear – who ends up in an even worse condition that DiCaprio does, i.e. dead – carried out the attack for a noble reason.  DiCaprio had stumbled across its cubs and the bear was trying to protect its offspring.

 

The bear’s protective instincts tie in nicely with one of The Revenant’s main themes, which is parenthood.  DiCaprio’s character, 1820s frontiersman and trapper Hugh Glass, has a son (Forrest Goodluck) who’s treated with contempt by the white men around them because his mother was a Native American; and the father is constantly defending the son against their belligerence.  Meanwhile, the chief of the Arikara tribe (Duane Howard), whose braves decimate the party of trappers DiCaprio is guiding through the wilderness in a gruelling battle at the film’s start, is on the warpath because some white men have abducted his daughter (Nelaw Nakehk’o); and he’s desperately trying to find her.

 

After the mauling he gets from the bear, DiCaprio is betrayed by a couple of the trappers he’s been escorting.  Abandoning him out in the woods, crippled but still alive, is actually the least of the crimes they commit against him.  But the hard-as-nails DiCaprio refuses to die.  He scrabbles out of the grave they’ve dumped him in and he crawls, then staggers and finally limps across countless miles of hostile countryside, determined to catch up with his betrayers and get revenge.

 

The main person he wants revenge on is a thuggish troublemaker played by Tom Hardy, who speaks with a mumbling drawl that rates about 6 out of 10 on the Tom Hardy Mumbling Scale.  (10 on that scale is represented by Hardy’s performance in 2012’s The Dark Knight Rises.)  Hardy’s character has already survived a partial scalping by some native tribesmen that’s left his head, and hair, looking like that of Annabelle Lwin in Bow Wow Wow when they had a hit with Go Wild in the Country.

 

Alejandro G. Iñárritu directs the action sequences with aplomb but he’s equally interested in the imagery of the beautiful but dangerous landscapes that DiCaprio has to traverse — icy peaks, snowy plains, primordial forests, vertiginous cliffs, frothing rivers and howling storms — landscapes that are populated by elk, bison and packs of ravening wolves.  Nature with its endless cycles of birth, life and death, Iñárritu seems to say, is utterly indifferent to the affairs of mankind, however grand those affairs may be.  DiCaprio might get his revenge or might not, but at the end of the day the snow will still fall, the wind will still blow and the wolves will still prey.  This makes The Revenant reminiscent of the films of director Terence Malick, such as The Thin Red Line (1998) and The New World (2005), which display a similar preoccupation with the perpetual motions of nature.  In fact, The Revenant is like a Terence Malick movie with a very big injection of testosterone.

 

Actually, I think Malick has the upper hand on Iñárritu when it comes to conveying the chaos of the battles between settlers and natives in newly colonised North America.  A battle depicted in The New World, which is set two centuries before the time of The Revenant, is disorganised, confusing and episodic.  It stops and starts again and is almost like a mass-brawl of drunkards in a late-night pub.  Iñárritu’s battle sequence at the start of The Revenant is terrifyingly haphazard – death can claim anyone, from any angle, at any moment – but the fighters are a bit too efficient.  Every musket-ball and whizzing arrow seems to find a target, i.e. in some screaming victim’s flesh.  Considering the primitiveness of the weapons involved, I imagine the reality would have been more shambolic.  (And later there’s an unlikely scene where DiCaprio, being chased by Arikara warriors and riding his horse pell-mell towards a cliff, manages to swing around and blast his nearest pursuer off his saddle with a dodgy old musket.)

 

The bear-attack scene is more convincing.  DiCaprio gets savaged but manages to play dead, and eventually the bear loses interest in him.  Then, as he crawls towards his fallen gun, the big grizzly beast comes roaring back to give him a second mauling.  DiCaprio’s helplessness and the bear’s treatment of him, which is like a sadistic and attention-deficient kid playing with a ragdoll, make the scene ring true.

 

I’ve never read the book on which The Revenant was partly based, the 2002 novel by Michael Punke.  But I imagine Iñárritu was inspired too by Jack London’s short stories about prospectors and trappers in the Yukon and by Cormac McCarthy’s ‘revisionist’ western novel of 1985, the mayhem-filled Blood Meridian.  Though The Revenant, despite all the cruelty it depicts, is pretty upbeat compared to Blood Meridian.  Apart from Tom Hardy’s character, the half-dozen main characters in The Revenant have at least a glimmer of goodness in them.  In Blood Meridian, everyone is as rotten as Hardy.

 

Finally, a word about DiCaprio winning an Oscar for this.  He’s done good work with filmmakers like Martin Scorsese (2006’s The Departed), Quentin Tarantino (2012’s Django Unchained) and Christopher Nolan (2010’s Inception, which also starred Hardy), so I’d assumed an Oscar was coming his way sooner or later.  However, it seems a bit odd to give him an Oscar for The Revenant because his role here doesn’t involve much (verbal) acting.  As Hugh Glass, DiCaprio spends his time reacting with grunts, grimaces and howls of pain to being clawed, mangled, stabbed, starved, frozen and buried alive; to having to cauterise his wounds with gunpowder, eat raw fish and dodge lots of arrows; to plunging off cliffs, getting swept away by rapids and being entombed in heavy falls of snow.  His dialogue is hardly Shakespearean.  Mainly it consists of exclamations like GAAAAAAH! and UUUUURGH! and AAAAARGH!

 

Then again…   Has there ever been an Oscar award that wasn’t bitterly contested by film fans?  I suppose not.

 

F**k me! That was good!

 

(c) Kennedy Miller Mitchell

 

For many years, I had sat through crap superhero movies, and crap cloned dinosaur movies, and crap teenage vampire movies, and crap identikit zombie movies, and crap Adam Sandler movies, and crap Vince Vaughan movies, and crap every-other-sort-of movies, and felt sad.  I felt sad because I didn’t want to see any of those crap movies.

 

What I really wanted to see was a movie where Tom Hardy and a gang of leathery, take-no-shit-from-anyone motor-biking old ladies fight off hordes of albino skinheads with chainsaws on top of a giant truck that’s driven by a prosthetic-limbed woman in racoon make-up and has big jaggy metal bits sticking out of its sides and roars through a post-apocalyptic Australian wasteland at a hundred miles an hour.  But nobody had ever made this movie or was ever likely to.  And that’s why I felt sad.

 

But now the Australian director George Miller, who’s 70 years young, has come along and made a movie called Mad Max: Fury Road and guess what?  Tom Hardy is in it!  And so is a gang of leathery, take-no-shit-from-anyone motor-biking old ladies!  And they have to fight off hordes of albino skinheads with chainsaws on top of a giant truck!  And the giant truck is driven by a prosthetic-limbed woman in racoon make-up!  And it has big jaggy metal bits sticking out of its sides!  And – you guessed it – it roars through a post-apocalyptic Australian wasteland at a hundred miles an hour!  Oh, and it contains no trace of superheroes, cloned dinosaurs, teenage vampires, identikit zombies, Adam Sandler or Vince f***ing Vaughan.  Thanks for that, George.

 

(c) Kennedy Miller Mitchell

 

Yes, Mad Max: Fury Road, which I saw a few days ago, is upon us.  And it’s a thundering, snarling, crashing, colliding behemoth of a film that makes rival summer blockbuster Jurassic World look as miniscule as a flea circus.  It has everything – the afore-mentioned Tom Hardy in the title role; and Charlize Theron playing Imperator Furiosa, the afore-mentioned prosthetic-limbed woman in raccoon make-up; and a desert-dwelling speed tribe called the Vuvalini, who are the afore-mentioned motor-biking old ladies and whose number includes 78-year-old actress Melissa Jaffer, whom I remember from the early-noughties Australian / American sci-fi show Farscape.  It’s also got two hours of non-stop vehicular mayhem, but that goes without saying.

 

And it’s got a white-skinned goon called Nux, who has a car engine engraved on his chest and a pair of tumours nicknamed Larry and Barry growing out of his shoulder.  Playing Nux is Nicholas Hoult – the very same Nicholas Hoult who was once little Marcus Brewster, the lad with the unfortunate pudding-bowl haircut whom Hugh Grant befriended in About a Boy (2002).  See what hanging out with Hugh Grant does to you?

 

(c) Working Title

(c) Kennedy Miller Mitchell

 

And it’s got the People Eater, a corpulent chap with elephantiasis and a tin nose, who drives a modified stretch Mercedes Limousine and is played by John Howard – whom I assume isn’t the same John Howard who was Liberal Party prime minister of Australia from 1996 to 2007.  It’s got the Bullet Farmer, a lunatic whose teeth have been replaced by bullets and who drives a Valiant Charger mounted on a tank chassis.  And best of all, it’s got the Doof Warrior, a bloke who stands atop a giant rig, before a wall of speakers, playing a flame-throwing heavy-metal guitar whilst accompanied by a rhythm section consisting of half-a-dozen guys bashing away at taiku drums.  At this point I could shout, “Rock ‘n’ roll!”, but it would sound a bit pathetic.

 

(c) Kennedy Miller Mitchell

 

One of the many good things about Mad Max: Fury Road is that it doesn’t stomp over the memory of the original three Mad Max movies that Miller directed between 1979 and 1985 and that starred Mel Gibson.  The first was an admirably rough-edged ‘Ozploitation’ feature.  The second, 1981’s Mad Max 2, was an out-and-out action classic that influenced everyone from Duran Duran, who in 1984 incorporated its post-apocalyptic leather-clad punk-Mohican aesthetic into their Wild Boys video, to the makers of scabrous animated TV show South Park – its hero Stan Marsh has a Mad Max 2 poster hanging in his bedroom.   Alas, the third instalment, Mad Max beyond Thunderdome, was disappointing.  Its first half was solid, but then the sanitising influence of mainstream Hollywood filmmaking began to creep in, most obviously with the introduction of a horrid Disney-esque tribe of lost children.  Byron Kennedy, producer of the first two films, died before the shooting of Thunderdome and I suspect his sad absence had something to do with the third film’s inferiority.

 

With Mad Max: Fury Road you can almost believe that Hardy’s character is a direct continuation of the one played by Mel Gibson.  The only thing disrupting the continuity is how Hardy is assailed by harrowing flashbacks / phantoms of his dead wife and child, and these clearly aren’t the same wife and child who were slaughtered by the bad guys in the first Mad Max.  (In Fury Road, the child is a young girl whereas in the first film it was a baby.)  Fury Road does, though, stay true to the anarchic spirit of the originals.  For one thing, despite its massive budget, Miller has kept the CGI to a minimum and crammed in as many authentic physical effects and as much authentic stunt-work as possible – things that made the original movies so eye-watering.

 

I suspect Miller got to make Fury Road his own way, with little interference from Hollywood and the money-men, because he’d been trying to get it off the ground since the 1990s and during that time the franchise’s image had become tainted through its association with Mel Gibson.  This was thanks to some loathsome and well-publicised anti-Semitic comments that Gibson spewed out in the mid-noughties.  After that, I’m sure, the studios wanted to keep all things Mel-related at arm’s length, including Miller and his new Mad Max project.

 

(c) Kennedy Miller Mitchell

 

One nice nod to the original movies is that Fury Road’s big villain, the skull-masked Immortan Joe, is played by English actor Hugh Keays-Byrne – who played the Toecutter, the original big villain in the original Mad Max movie.   It’s just a pity that Miller didn’t cast the gangling New Zealand actor Bruce Spence in Fury Road too.  Spence was marvellous as the demented gyro-captain in Mad Max 2.  In fact, the only thing that could possibly make Fury Road even more awesome would be the appearance at the movie’s finale of Spence’s gyrocopter, swooping down from the heavens while Spence drops poisonous snakes on top of Immortan Joe’s head.

 

Meanwhile, feminists like Laurie Penny and Tansy Rayner Roberts have embraced Mad Max: Fury Road in admiration of its strong female characters.  Charlize Theron’s Furiosa kick-starts the plot when she snatches away five young ‘brides’ whom Immortan Joe has kept imprisoned for breeding purposes; and as the six of them make a break for freedom, with Joe and his hordes in hot pursuit, she keeps that plot in motion.  Whereas Max merely reacts to events – even after he forms an alliance with Furiosa, it’s still her who calls the shots.  The motor-biking Vuvalini rate high on the tough-gal scale too.  And even the five brides, the film’s least kick-ass female contingent, aren’t depicted as simpering eye-candy, as they might have been.  They never develop into warrior-women but, gradually and endearingly, their characters become more idiosyncratic and more proactive.

 

http://www.buzzfeed.com/lauriepenny/the-fast-and-the-feminist#.bh1preQJE

http://tansyrr.com/tansywp/mad-max-as-feminist-ally/

 

Mad Max: Fury Road goes against other Hollywood stereotypes as well.  It shows people who are mentally and physically disadvantaged – good guys like Max with post-traumatic stress disorder and Furiosa with a missing arm, and bad ones like the elephantiasis-stricken People Eater and Corpus Colossus, Joe’s telescope-wielding lookout man (played by Quentin Kenihan, a sufferer from brittle-bone disease in real life) – but who simply shrug those issues off and get on with things.  And with the Vuvalini, the film rebukes the ageism that’s rife in mainstream Hollywood.  The Vuvalini could have been played for laughs — “Look!  Hell’s Grannies!  Ha ha!” — but Miller presents them as having a wisdom and serenity that comes with old age, combined with a badass-ery that defies assumptions about old age.  The sixty and seventy-something actresses who played the Vuvalini performed their own stunts, which makes me love them even more.

 

http://www.madmaxuniverse.com/the-old-ladies-of-fury-road-did-their-own-stunts/

 

(c) Kennedy Miller Mitchell

 

It’s heartening that a major science-fiction movie with such attitudes should appear at a time when the Hugo Awards, the most prestigious set of prizes that the sci-fi community hands out to the genre’s best literary and dramatic works each year, have been engulfed in controversy.  The Hugo nomination lists for 2015 were stuffed with works forwarded by a bloc of right-wing fans who believe that sci-fi should be about Caucasian alpha-male humans zapping inferior alien species with futuristic weaponry, and not involve women, ethnic minorities, social issues, ecology or general liberal wussiness.  (And it shouldn’t be, you know, too literary.)  Organising the hijacking of the Hugo nominations were conservative writers Brad Torgersen and Larry Correia and the monumentally-reactionary arse-pipe Theodore Beale – a man who’s argued in the past that rape within marriage is legitimate, that the Taliban were justified in shooting 15-year-old Malala Yousafzai, and that giving women the vote is a bad thing because women tend to favour anti-gun legislation.

 

http://www.newstatesman.com/culture/2015/04/how-hugo-awards-got-very-own-gamergate

 

I trust these cave-dwellers found Mad Max: Fury Road as welcome as someone dumping a tanker-load of manure over them.

 

Already Miller is talking about a sequel to Mad Max: Fury Road, but it’s impossible to see how a further movie could top this one.  Unless, of course, George heeds my advice…  And brings back Bruce Spence!

 

(c) Kennedy Miller Productions

 

The moonshine boys: film review / Lawless

 

(c) Filmnation

 

Lawless, the recent 1930s-set American-backwoods gangster movie, comes with impressive credentials.  It’s directed by John Hillcoat, whose CV includes the 2005 Australian-western The Proposition and the 2009 adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s novel The Road.  It’s scripted by singer-songwriter and occasional novelist Nick Cave, who also scripted The Proposition.  (Along with Warren Ellis, he supplied the music for The Road, but had no hand in that film’s screenplay.)  And its cast contains a number of big-hitters, both established stars like Guy Pearce and Gary Oldman and up-and-coming ones like Tom Hardy, Jessica Chastain, Mia Wasikowska and Shia LaBeouf.  Yet despite the talent on display, and despite some good moments, Lawless never manages to be the sum of its parts.  Why not?

 

Part of the problem is the weight of expectation attached to Lawless, following Hillcoat and Cave’s previous collaboration, The Proposition. That film was remarkable – ostensibly it was a western, though one set in the 19th-century Australian outback rather than on the American frontier.  It was suffused with lyricism but also doused in brutality, and – an increasingly rare thing for a period movie made these days – it was unflinching in its depiction of the dust, dirt, flies, grease and general squalor that constituted the daily living conditions for most people at that particular time and place.  Indeed, it left you feeling that the great civilising moment in Australian history came when somebody decided to import shampoo.

 

The plot of Lawless has some similarities with that of The Proposition.  Both films concern a trio of brothers living on the wrong side of the law, three sibling bushrangers in The Proposition, three sibling bootleggers called the Bondurant brothers – played by Hardy, LaBeouf and Jason Clarke – operating in the Virginian mountains during Prohibition in Lawless.  Also, both feature a lawman who tries to resolve problems through moderation and diplomacy, only to have his work violently and bloodily undone when a hard-line and unsympathetic superior intervenes.  In the case of Lawless, things turn bad with the arrival of Special Deputy Charlie Rakes, whom Guy Pearce plays as an out-and-out and practically psychotic bastard.

 

Unfortunately, that’s all there is to Lawless.   At the start, the three Bondurants are happily distilling moonshine while the county sheriff and his men tactfully turn a blind eye to their activities, provided a few free jars of the stuff are occasionally passed their way.  Then Pearce appears on the scene, disturbs the equilibrium, makes life hard for the Bondurants, and things reach an inevitably vicious conclusion.  Not only does the overall plot seem a bit thin, but it feels illogically protracted.  Even half-an-hour in, Pearce has shown himself to be such a malevolent prick that you wonder why Hardy and co couldn’t just shoot him to shreds there and then.

 

As a sub-plot, we have LaBeouf as the youngster of the family trying to prove himself to his older and more experienced brothers.  At first, he fails to impress.  He makes a fool of himself, gets beaten up and generally achieves nothing but derision.  Later, however, after he manages to strike an audacious deal that allows him to supply moonshine to a mobster in Chicago, played by Gary Oldman, he wins their respect and becomes a proper player in the family business.  Needless to say, as LaBeouf gets more successful, and as the money rolls in in growing quantities, his suits become costlier and smarter, his 1930s jalopies become bigger and shinier, and his demeanour becomes slicker and brasher.  But of course this young-novice-ascending-the-ladder-of-crime theme is one that’s appeared over and over again in gangster movies, ever since the days of real Prohibition.  Al Pacino, for example, has played a character undergoing the same rite-of-passage twice in his career, firstly in Francis Ford Coppola’s original Godfather movie in 1971 and then in Brian De Palma’s remake of Scarface in 1982.

 

In the absence of anything new, and with a lack of any real narrative meat, Lawless reminded me most of Sam Mendes’ 2002 effort with Tom Hanks, The Road to Perdition – another 1930s-set gangster film that looked good and had its moments of drama, but in the end simply hadn’t enough substance to become a classic.  I find this disappointing to report as I’d hoped the 1930s American Prohibition / Great Depression setting would fire Nick Cave’s imagination and inspire him to pen a weightier script than he did.  (Then again, he was working from the 2008 book The Wettest County in the World by Matt Bondurant, a descendent of those Bondurant brothers, who in fact were real-life bootleggers in 1930s Virginia.  So Cave may have found his hands tied.)  Cave obviously has a fondness for this period, since it’s been a setting both for several of his songs, such as Stagger Lee, which begins, “It was back in ’32 when times were hard / He had a Colt 42 and a deck of cards…”; and for his first novel And the Ass saw the Angel, whose main character is described on the back-cover blurb as ‘(o)utcast, mute, a lone twin cut from a drunken mother in a shack full of junk.’

 

That said, Lawless contains much to enjoy during its two-hour running time.  The cinematography, capturing first the melancholy autumnal hues of the Virginian mountain forests (though it was actually filmed in Georgia) and then their verdant summer greenery, is gorgeous.  And Cave’s script does provide some inventive moments: lyrically inventive moments, such as when LaBeouf, infatuated with the local Baptist preacher’s daughter and tanked up on moonshine, stumbles drunkenly into a church service and finds himself participating in a weird but somehow erotic foot-bathing ceremony; and violently inventive ones, such as when Hardy punches a guy on his – ouch! – throat tumour.

 

And the performances are good.  LaBeouf manages to stay on the right side of smug – even as he rises towards the position of bootlegger kingpin, he keeps his character human and faintly mock-able, so that he doesn’t lose our sympathies.   Oldman’s role barely amounts to more than a cameo, but it’s always good to see him.  Pearce, meanwhile, doesn’t so much give a performance as serve up a king-sized portion of ham.  It’s quality ham, though — you can’t say he isn’t entertaining.

 

Among the supporting cast, mention should be made of Bill Camp as the peaceable local sheriff who finds himself stuck between a rock and a hard place while the situation between Pearce and the Bondurant brothers escalates into warfare; and Dane DeHaan who plays the Bondurants’ timid and lame-footed cousin Cricket.  As the brothers’ backroom boffin who designs and maintains their illicit stills and carries out repairs and improvements to their cars – he even discovers that their vehicles can run on moonshine when gasoline is in short supply – I suppose Cricket is to them what Brains was to the Tracey brothers in Thunderbirds.

 

However, if the film belongs to anyone, it belongs to Tom Hardy, who plays Forest Bondurant, the alpha male of the pack.  Hulking, brooding, often near-inarticulate and sometimes frighteningly brutish, Hardy generates a physical magnetism that makes it wholly believable that, say, a character as smart and sophisticated as the one played by Jessica Chastain should fall for him, mountain hick though he is.  I think a while back I wrote on this blog that Britain had never produced an actor the equal of the scary-yet-fascinating Oliver Reed, either B.O. (Before Ollie) or A.O. (After Ollie).  Well, on the strength of Hardy’s performance here, Britain has now.  Though I hope Hardy doesn’t blow his career as spectacularly as Reed did.

 

A word about the film’s musical soundtrack, which as you might expect from a production boasting the heavy involvement of Nick Cave, is very good.  For Lawless, Cave and Warren Ellis formed a ‘house band’ called the Bootleggers and invited a number of famous singers and musicians to collaborate with them, including the former Screaming Trees frontman and Isobel Campbell’s sometime partner in song, Mark Lanegan (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p8A5tfubT_k), Gram Parson’s old muse Emmylou Harris (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4yVfrkQjiB4) and legendary 85-year-old Virginian singer and banjoist Ralph Stanley (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g3_BXZphU3Y).

 

The soundtrack isn’t for those expecting the music of a 1930s Virginia-set film to be historically and culturally accurate.  Among the above names, only Ralph Stanley belongs to the musical tradition of the area — the tradition brewed from Irish-Scottish folk, jazz and blues influences that, by the mid-20th century, was going under the name of ‘bluegrass’.  Purists may balk too at the fact that Stanley contributes a solo track that’s actually an eccentric cover of the Velvet Underground’s White Light / White Heat (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=77lc1yxBtFE).  But most aficionados of good music won’t need to imbibe much moonshine before they find themselves tapping a foot to the tunes accompanying this movie.