“Legend” (2015)

BIOGRAPHICAL FILMS HAVE an irritating habit of being underwhelming, even if, as in the case of Legend, you double up, so to speak, and focus on two people instead of one. There are exceptions of course––Ali, for example––but even in that case there are times when you find yourself looking at your watch. The problem is that even the most interesting lives––and the lives of the Kray twins are nothing if not interesting––have their less eventful moments, and if those moments are relevant to the story you want to tell then you risk the story descending into incoherence by failing to include them.

In Legend, it’s the story that’s the problem. John Pearson’s book The Profession of Violence: The Rise and Fall of the Kray Twins, gave writer-director Brian Helgeland plenty to work with, and yet rather than choosing to depict, say, the rise of the twins, their glamorous and bloody heyday, or their inevitable “fall” and incarceration, Helgeland tries to tell the whole tale in a little over two hours. He isn’t the first filmmaker to do this sort of thing and won’t be the last, but the impression you get of Legend is of a film in fast-forward, with only the occasional pause for an act of mindless violence or a nice cup of tea.


Helgeland tries to tell the whole tale in a little over two hours. He isn’t the first filmmaker to do this sort of thing and won’t be the last, but the impression you get of Legend is of a film in fast-forward, with only the occasional pause for an act of mindless violence or a nice cup of tea.


At the time of the film’s beginning, Reggie and Ronnie Kray (Tom Hardy) are club owners in Bethnal Green in East London. Frances Shea (Emily Browning), who in an odd choice is the film’s narrator as well as Reggie’s love interest, meets Reggie through her brother, one of the many Kray minions who seem mainly to drive cars and stand around in pubs looking ‘ard. In her voiceover she casts Reggie as something like the more sensible, if not exactly sensitive, of the pair; Ronnie, on the other hand, is the violent paranoid schizophrenic and “one-man mob”. (Anyone who knows anything about the Krays will know that Reggie was every bit as violent as his brother, so we can put that line down to unreliable narration or creative licence or both). At any rate Reggie and Frances start a romantic relationship and soon after that, Reggie and Ronnie begin to blur the line separating gangsterism and legitimate business through the Krays’ associate, Leslie Payne (David Thewlis). Ronnie, however, doesn’t find this as appealing as his twin brother does.

Though Legend claims to tell the story of London’s most infamous pair of gangsters, it tells only half of it, and instead paints a picture of a suave and charismatic antihero whose loyalty to an unstable brother keeps his feet firmly planted in the world of the criminal. This, needless to say, has its shortcomings as well as being untrue: in an effort to portray the two twins as starkly different if not exactly opposites, the both of them grow more and more cartoonish as the film goes on. Reggie, for example, seems to mutate from a loveable rogue into, at times at least, a sophisticated London man not unlike everyone’s favourite  secret agent, albeit with a Cockney accent that M would surely never get used to. (Incidentally John Pearson, on whose book the film is based, was a biographer of Ian Fleming as well as the third official author of the James Bond series). Ronnie, meanwhile, gets more ridiculous by the scene. All this gives Tom Hardy plenty of space to flex his dramatic muscles and of course he does, but, equally, the two characters he plays are oversimplified, and an ultraviolent rags-to-riches yarn which by its nature should be gritty and involving becomes nothing more than a stage for Hardy’s undoubted talents. In Legend plot is secondary to character, and yet Helgeland still fails to offer any insight into what, exactly, made either Reggie or Ronnie Kray tick.


In Legend plot is secondary to character, and yet Helgeland still fails to offer any insight into what, exactly, made either Reggie or Ronnie Kray tick.


Helgeland’s decision to have the one-dimensional Frances narrate the film is a strange one, and her dialogue is weighed down with well-worn one-liners as appalling as: “It was time for the Krays to enter the secret history of the 1960s”. She barely if ever develops into anything more than the nagging gangster’s wife, and even when her performance is finally (and mercifully) brought to an end, it’s with a maddeningly self-satisfied farewell. It is just as irritating that Helgeland copies, or tries to copy, quite so much from the better gangster films of the last fifty years. The scene in which Reggie takes Frances to his club in Bethnal Green, to give just one example, strikes you as simply the Primark version of the famous Copacabana tracking shot in GoodFellas.

The story of the Krays is a good one, but Legend doesn’t do it justice, and wastes an excellent cast––including Peaky Blinders actor Paul Anderson, who is no stranger to playing a gangster––in doing so. Tom Hardy is of course brilliant, but even acting at his level does not make up for a weak script and––what’s far more problematic––weak direction.

Mark Bell’s “Eddie: Strongman” (2015)

ANY MENTION OF “strongman” will elicit in the minds of members of my generation memories of the giant Magnus Samuelsson or Mariusz Pudzianowski pulling trucks and lifting stones and, red in the face and trembling, heaving hundreds of kilos in weight off the floor. Then and now, it was and is only on the fringes of the mainstream, but then, as now, a highly charismatic figure has emerged and seems determined to thrust the spotlight upon it.

Like the four-time World’s Strongest Man winner Jon Pall Sigmarsson, whose guttural (and questionable) declaration that “there is no reason to be alive if you can’t do deadlift” made him an instant sporting icon, Eddie Hall, through sheer force of personality, is reacquainting Britons with this most primitive sport. Anyone who watches a lot of sport will know that self-obsession is so often dressed up as “showmanship”; Eddie Hall chooses instead to describe himself as a “narcissistic prick”, which makes a nice change.

Eddie: Strongman, which was made in 2015 by Matt Bell, follows the eponymous athlete as he strives to be named “World’s Strongest Man”, a feat which he did eventually achieve in 2017. Through Hall, we come to learn about the punishing routines of men like him and the sacrifices they are forced––or rather, choose––to make to achieve their goals. Hall, and his principal rivals Brian Shaw, Zydrunas Savickas and Hafthor Julius Bjornsson, who appeared in Game of Thrones, must eat almost constantly when they aren’t training, and in Hall’s case must sleep wearing an oxygen mask in the event that, due to his considerable size, he stops breathing while unconscious. As for Hall’s family he spends as much time with them as he can afford, which isn’t much, and his wife is under no illusions regarding how much he relies on her.


There’s a suggestion that Eddie is in some way playing a character when he, for example, pauses halfway through a strongman event to give the middle finger to his competitor, but like comedians who plead the same, the line separating the two personalities is blurred to say the least. Besides, as Rachel Dawes notes in Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins, “It’s not who you are underneath; it’s what you do that defines you.”


All this is fascinating. What Bell does so well and yet without straining, if I can put it that way, is to explore the psychology of men like Eddie Hall. Eddie grew up in a working-class area in Stoke-on-Trent, which since the closure of its pottery factories has been blighted by crime, and excelled first as a swimmer before turning to strength sports. (In point of fact he broke one of Mark Foster’s records as a teenager.) The exception that proves the rule that strongmen are, as Eddie suggests, complete narcissists, is Brian Shaw, whose need to be strong seems to be propelled by a kind of body dysmorphia or “bigorexia”: he mentions, at one point, that he used to eat extreme amounts of food because “more food means more big”. Hafthor and Zydrunas have shades of the same kind of self-obsession that drives Eddie. Memorably, the stoic Lithuanian Zydrunas, who we are told may be the greatest strongman ever to have lived, looks into the camera and says, “I have many trophies. You need a big house to store many trophies.” There’s a suggestion that Eddie is in some way playing a character when he, for example, pauses halfway through a strongman event to give the middle finger to his competitor, but like comedians who plead the same, the line separating the two personalities is blurred to say the least. Besides, as Rachel Dawes notes in Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins, “It’s not who you are underneath; it’s what you do that defines you.” It doesn’t harm Eddie’s cause: these athletes are almost totally reliant on sponsorship and competition victories to support their extreme habit, and a little self-promotion might be the order of the day.

Strongman, like those who choose its path, is far more complex than most would believe, but nevertheless there is something primal, and therefore interesting, about the pursuit of raw strength. Bodybuilding, in contrast, is found somewhere like the intersection of sport and performance art, and there are multiple criteria by which competitors are judged. In strongman, there is little room for style or grace or finesse; strength reigns supreme, and it has enduring appeal for that reason. As Eddie points out, the origins of strongman go deep into the history of the species. It isn’t much of a stretch to imagine our terrified nomadic ancestors gathering around to see who could lift the heaviest rock. Eddie: Strongman is illuminating and very watchable, for the most part because of its charismatic central figure and the unusual nature of the sport. But director Mark Bell nevertheless deserves praise himself for the way in which he tells his story.

“13 Minutes”

THERE WERE AT LEAST thirty attempts on Hitler’s life from 1933 until his death, the most well know of which was, Operation Valkyrie, which was popularised–and romanticised–by the 2008 film of the same name, starring Tom Cruise.

Claus Schenk Graf von Stauffenberg and his co-conspirators were, initially, enthusiastic about Nazism and the colonisation of Poland, and only soured towards Hitler and his policies extremely late in the day, when the tide began to turn against the Third Reich. Historians agree that Stauffenberg and the majority of the others were aristocrats and social conservatives who approved of German domination of continental Europe, but wished an upper-class élite to be at its helm, not the leaders of the populist, working-class Nazi Party.

That was not the case for George Elser, around whom Oliver Hirschbiegel’s 13 Minutes revolves. Elser did not have the luxury of co-conspirators with military experience and intimate access to Hitler when he made his attempt on the Fuhrer’s life in 1939. And unlike Stauffenberg, whose actions can be said to be at least in part motivated out of selfish desire, Elser’s motives were practical and, Oliver Hirschbiegel asserts, highly moral.

In the opening scene of 13 Minutes, Georg Elser (Christian Friedel) looks disdainfully at a Nazi flag, having hidden several sticks of dynamite connected to a wooden timing device in the basement beneath a Munich bierkeller, in which Adolf Hitler is due to give a speech.

The assassination attempt is unsuccessful–the home-made bomb detonates, but misses Hitler by thirteen minutes–and Elser is caught attempting to cross the border into Switzerland. The attempt on Hitler’s life is traced to Elser, and the German security services in Berlin first question him, and then torture him, to try to have him reveal the identities of his co-conspirators. Elser insists that he acted alone.

The film is a character study of Georg Elser. Hirschbiegel and the scriptwriters, father and daughter team Fred and Léonie-Claire Breinersdorfer, punctuate–clumsily–sequences of torture with Elser’s former life in pre-Nazified Germany. In the cold and desaturated present, the Kripo thugs beat Elser bloody; in the glowing warmth of the past, he dances joyfully along the banks of Lake Konstanz. Elser is depicted as a charming and creative man content to enjoy the simpler pleasures that life affords and dismayed by the rise of the Nazis. There is a syrupy subplot involving Elser’s relationship with Elsa (Katharina Schuttler), a woman married to a predictably unsavoury and passionately pro-Nazi husband, which does nothing to strip the film of its already mawkish patina.13 Minutes

The film belongs to Friedel, who turns in a very good performance as Elser. And this is to his great credit, because the Elser of 13 Minutes is depicted in an almost impossibly positive light. He is charming and musical, principled and brave, and, to the amazement of the Nazi security officials (“half the roof has caved in!”), technically proficient enough to design one of the world’s first time-bombs to kill Adolf Hitler. His assorted dalliances and relationship with a married woman are justified by the appalling, drunken behaviour of her husband. Hirschbiegel misses few opportunities to train his camera on the concerned face of Elser every time there is mention of a Nazi atrocity. Elser good; Nazis bad, the film tells us. Well yes, but we do not need to be reminded of this at every opportunity.

Nevertheless there is something to enjoy in 13 Minutes, which tells a quite remarkable (and largely untold) story, if in a rather conventional way. It strikes me as an account that Germany recognises should have been told a long time ago, and a belated attempt to give Georg Elser the approbation he no doubt deserves. You feel that perhaps Hirschbiegel played it safe after the awful Diana, which is a crying shame because 13 Minutes notably lacks cinematic flair.  It is confidently made, but hardly subtle, and dripping in sentimentality.

“What Happened, Miss Simone?”

LIKE JIM MORRISON or Janis Joplin or Kurt Cobain, Nina Simone deserves to be talked about as one of the artists of the 20th Century who as nearly as possible changed the culture with her artistic talents and force of personality. And like Morrison and Joplin and Cobain and, I suspect, many other creative geniuses––and I use that word sparingly––who never left the dive-bars and entered the mainstream, Nina Simone often burned far too brightly.

The Netflix original, What Happened, Miss Simone?, directed by Liz Garbus, is an attempt to get at why, precisely, everything fell apart for this towering personality, whose music alternately broke hearts and inspired revolution. The film opens with a performance from a later stage in Nina Simone’s career––a jazz festival, in Switzerland, where Simone looks out at an expectant audience with a hard expression for what becomes an almost uncomfortable length of time before breaking into a broad smile. ‘I have decided,’ she says, ‘to do no more jazz festivals . . .’ It’s a clip that gives the viewer an early taste of Simone’s extraordinary magnetism, but also the complexity and inner conflict that so deeply affected her later in her career.


Even the songs from Simone’s body of work which were not explicitly provocative or subversive or political––for instance the civil rights anthem ‘Mississippi Goddam’––carried within their melodies or their lyrics or within Simone’s performance a defiance of, and desire to be free from, the prisons of race and gender and oppressive relationships.


Garbus tells Simone’s story from her childhood in an Alabama marked by severe racial tension, where she showed the work ethic, ambition and desire for freedom which were characteristic of her career. Simone, it becomes clear, placed a premium on freedom––what she defined as ‘living without fear’––and which she experienced only infrequently and usually on-stage, and as her story unravels it’s plain to see how many different forces were exerted on her from an early age all the way through to her death at the age of seventy. Even the songs from Simone’s body of work which were not explicitly provocative or subversive or political––for instance the civil rights anthem ‘Mississippi Goddam’––carried within their melodies or their lyrics or within Simone’s performance a defiance of, and desire to be free from, the prisons of race and gender and oppressive and unhealthy relationships.

The interviews with Simone’s longtime bandmate, Al Schackman––who Simone herself describes as an intensely ‘sensitive man’––are particularly touching and illuminating. Schackman remained one of the constants in the life of Simone, who she described as sharing a kind of symbiosis with her: he was able to adapt instantly when Simone changed key––as she did often and without warning––and there’s a clear suggestion that Schackman was in tune with her emotionally as well as musically. Fittingly, some of the best insights into Simone’s life and character come from him. He and another friend of Simone, the Dutch photographer Gerrit de Bruin, nearly as possible saved Simone’s life in the 1980s when her behaviour became increasingly erratic. (She was subsequently diagnosed as bipolar).


The interviews with Simone’s longtime bandmate, Al Schackman are particularly touching and illuminating. He was able to adapt instantly when Simone changed key and there’s a clear suggestion that Schackman was in tune with her emotionally as well as musically.


Like Mitch Winehouse in Asaf Kapadia’s excellent documentary, Amy, or the tabloid journalist Nick Pisa in Amanda Knox, Nina’s abusive husband Andrew Stroud emerges early on as the designated villain of the story. But while the charge levelled at Mitch Winehouse was neglect, and at Nick Pisa a sort of callous opportunism, the sins of Simone’s husband, as described in the documentary, seem infinitely more direct and deliberate. Simone described in one interview how, after being handed a slip of paper by a man at a nightclub, Stroud beat her ‘all the way home, up the stairs . . . I couldn’t open my eyes for two weeks.’ It is to the credit of Stroud that he agreed to appear at all in the documentary, which casts him as a cruel and manipulative man who wasted no time in taking over Simone’s career and whose sole intention was to make as much money as possible, even if that meant working his wife into the ground. But the lives of complex people are invariably complex themselves, and it is Simone herself who emerges in the latter part of the documentary as a ‘villain’ of sorts, abandoning her family for Liberia and then, upon her return, beating her daughter Lisa so badly that she contemplated suicide.

Lisa, for her part, neither condemns her mother completely nor exonerates her for her shortcomings, choosing instead to remember her in her totality. Garbus, too, tells Simone’s story without bias. The resultant picture which emerges of the woman dubbed the High Priestess of Soul is neither idealised nor degraded. Instead, it is a picture of a brilliant and complex woman with some very dark demons who it seems was never quite able to find the ‘freedom’ that she was seeking.

“The Wolfpack” (2015)

YOU DO WONDER what sort of man keeps––or perhaps I should say imprisons––his children in a flat for the bulk of their young lives and yet somehow has the gall to claim he did it out of love. But Oscár Angulo, the father of the immensely likeable siblings of Crystal Moselle’s The Wolfpack, is not the film’s star (though he probably wishes he was). That dubious honour goes to those same siblings who, in spite of having a childhood that might at the very least be described as unconventional, somehow grew up to become talented and charming actors and moviemakers, albeit in their own low-budget sort of way.

In the opening scene, the oldest of the seven Angulo siblings, Bhagavan, introduces his dysfunctional family. His father is or was a Hare Krishna devotee and wanted to imitate Krishna by creating his own extensive brood in his own  unremarkable image, which should give you a clue as to what kind of man Señor Angulo is. He gave each of his sons the name of a God in the oldest language in the world, Sanskrit: Bhagavan, Narayana, Govinda, Mukunda, Jagadisa and Krsna. Oscár, we learn, hails from Peru, and met his wife Susanne, a hippie from the Mid-West, on the Inca trail to Machu Picchu. Somehow she found his anti-work, anti-government, anti-“system” ravings charming, and the pair settled down to continue their micro-revolution in a small apartment in the Lower East Side of Manhattan.


In the opening scene, the oldest of the seven Angulo siblings, Bhagavan, introduces his dysfunctional family. His father is or was a Hare Krishna devotee and wanted to imitate Krishna by creating his own extensive brood in his own  unremarkable image, which should give you a clue as to what kind of man Señor Angulo is.


The rules of the apartment went like this: never go out (unless supervised by Oscár), never talk to strangers, and never go into the rooms that share walls with those of the neighbours without express permission. After all, the neighbours might be listening. In effect, these rules meant that the Angulo children only left the apartment a handful of times each year and some years not at all. Their only relief from the claustrophobia of imprisonment was each other, and Oscár’s extensive movie library, which contained over two thousand films. With little else to do, the boys (their youngest sibling, a sister, is mentally ill) developed a sort of extreme cinephilia, which manifested in their filming and acting out hundreds of films; these reproductions often involved their stars showing a fair amount of ingenuity, such as creating outfits out of yoga mats and cereal boxes.

As you might expect, their ways of speaking are not so much seasoned as saturated with references to films, which they tend to mention to qualify or clarify something they’ve said. And they regularly slip into the jargon and slang and patterns of speech of characters from, for instance, Reservoir Dogs––a film that it seems they have particular affection for. (When you consider its themes of loyalty and brotherhood, that shouldn’t come as much of a surprise). All the while, Oscár’s delusions about his own perceived divinity seem to have caught up with him, and by the time of The Wolfpack he is a drunk and pathetic and impotent figure who is no longer able to control his family.


As you might expect, their ways of speaking are not so much seasoned as saturated with references to films, which they tend to mention to qualify or clarify something they’ve said. And they regularly slip into the jargon and slang and patterns of speech of characters from, for instance, Reservoir Dogs––a film that it seems they have particular affection for.


Director Crystal Moselle, who ran into the boys on Fifth Avenue, plays the part of detached observer throughout the film, which you feel is the way it should be. At any rate the boys are charismatic and charming enough to hold their own, so to speak, in front of the camera. But if the film does has an obvious shortcoming its the way that Moselle deals with the youngest of the Angulo siblings. There are, of course, issues concerning consent and her vulnerability, but it’s not so much that she doesn’t get time on camera as the fact she fails to get much of a mention at all. It’s possible that this was something Moselle herself and the boys established before filming, but as it is she seems to be dismissed. And it bears remembering that she still has to live with a lazy and tyrannical father and a mother who appears still to be largely in his thrall.

In a film that’s altogether memorable there are scenes that stand out. A sequence in which the brothers dance to the Europop anthem Tarzan Boy by Baltimore springs to mind, as does an early venture into the outside world. (“Whoa––this is like 3D, man!” one of the boys says). What surprises you most about The Wolfpack is that you feel it should be a tragic story; instead, and though the circumstances of the boys at the centre of the film are of course tragic, The Wolfpack is really quite uplifting, and serves more as an example of how creativity, and specifically film, can inoculate against and ultimately lift you out of misery. The Wolfpack, to put it another way, is joyful, not sad, and that’s to the eternal credit of the set of brothers at its centre, who you hope––and suspect––will one day find themselves making their own thoroughly enjoyable films.

‘Tale of Tales’

IN THE OPENING FIFTEEN minutes of Tale of Tales, a hunched old man in a black cloak tells a king (John C. Reilly) and a queen (Salma Hayek) that in order for the pair to conceive, they must kill a sea monster and have a virgin cook its heart. And without any further ado, the king straps on a steampunk diving suit and sets off to do just that.

This is the mad and fantastical sixteenth-century Italy of Matteo Garrone’s Tale of Tales, in which elements of the magical cannot be said to be purely incidental, but are opaque enough to reassure that this is a film not about monsters but about people. And–what’s more–there is a suggestion that Garrone is making clear his disdain for the sort of magical realism that excuses lazy writing.

The plot comprises three stories lifted from the tales of the Neapolitan poet Giambattista Basile about three Royal rulers. In the first, the Queen of Longtrellis (Hayek), who is unable to bear children, takes the advice of a necromancer in return for a child. The eccentric King of Highhills (Toby Jones) develops an unhealthy obsession with a flea and starts to neglect his loving and obedient daughter (Bebe Cave) in the second. Meanwhile, the womanising King of Strongcliff (Vincent Cassel) pursues a hideous old woman after hearing her singing in the street and mistaking her for a beautiful teenager.

Tale of Tales, then, revolves around institutions and power, and the mad delusions those things inspire. Garrone grants himself a great deal of artistic licence in his take on Basile—Basile wrote the earliest versions of Rapunzel and Sleeping Beauty, and influenced both the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen—but he doesn’t quite pull it off. You wonder, as the film draws to its unsatisfying close, what its point was.

The film’s principal faults are its confused structure and Garrone’s failure to push forward with more forceful pacing during each individual story. It is just as each tale draws you in that Garrone chooses to shift the narrative to the next. It isn’t until at least the midway point that the three tales begin to gather traction (when they do the film improves immeasurably) but there is too little time left. A linear approach, in which the stories are told back-to-back, might have suited better.

Visually, however, Tale of Tales is striking. Its setting is surreal and sometimes sinister, partly derivative of—yet achieving more than—Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods while at the same time borrowing darker features from Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth. Set designer Dimitri Capuani and costume designer Massimo Cantini Parrini concoct some gorgeously ornate visuals to contrast in stark fashion with the grotesque elements of the film.

The film’s little humour comes almost entirely from the severity with which all mad matters are treated by its eccentric characters, beginning with the dutiful slaying of the sea monster.

The flea is delightfully revolting (and I say this as someone who sat, stoney-faced, through The Human Centipede and Antichrist). The scenes which Toby Jones shares with the flea are easily the film’s best, and Salma Hayek is excellent as a suitably lugubrious queen. John C. Reilly, however, is bizarrely cast as the king of the film’s opening.

These are fables for lovers of the macabre, and weird and wild antidotes to cleaner takes on similar material and the moralistic fairy tales of Disney. Nevertheless, Tale of Tales rarely surprises or jars or delights, and lurches from story to story in an apparently arbitrary way. It simply doesn’t quite work.

“Mad Max: Fury Road”

IN A DIESEL-punk dystopian desert, white-faced ‘war boys’ huff spray paint and drive weaponised coupés, tankers and bikes across the wasteland as if the most savage travelling circus ever conceived is coming to town. It’s a Shangri-La for sociopaths and sadists, and a nightmare for everyone else, and it’s here, after three decades in development limbo, that George Miller sets the adrenaline-fuelled Mad Max: Fury Road.

After a short preamble running through the various events which led to the sorry state in which the world presently finds itself, Max looks over the dusty wasteland of what used to be Australia and then bites the head off a two-headed mutant lizard. Shortly after that he’s on the move with a convoy of weaponised cars and trucks in hot pursuit, and for the rest of the film’s two-hour running time, it hardly ever slows down. Fury Road is as crazy as its haunted, hallucinating hero.


Miller shows and doesn’t tell, and just what he shows is breathtaking. Miller resists the temptation to desaturate the colours of his universe as most dystopian films tend to do. Instead he oversaturates, turning the dusty, desert wasteland vibrant orange; at night it’s a rich mid-blue.


Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne), a tumour-ridden warlord who holds power over a small community by rationing water and repurposing Norse mythology (‘Ride with me eternal on the highways of Valhalla!’), dispatches his best driver, Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron) to Gas Town to bring back ‘guzzoline’, in this hellish world a rare commodity over which wars have been fought. But Furiosa has other plans, and soon she deviates from the route and heads for hostile territory. Among those in the automobile ‘armada’ Joe sends to bring back Furiosa is sick Nux (Nicholas Hoult), who has Max strapped to his car to supply him with fresh blood.

This insane arrangement is set up with next to no dialogue. Miller shows and doesn’t tell, and just what he shows is breathtaking. Miller resists the temptation to desaturate the colours of his universe as most dystopian films tend to do. Instead he oversaturates, turning the dusty, desert wasteland vibrant orange; at night it’s a rich mid-blue. A toxic sandstorm is an impossibly dazzling mixture of reds and oranges and bright-white lightning, and when Furiosa kills a bike-riding mook with a flare gun, the smoke seems to plume from the screen. All of this adds to an immersing, overwhelming, stimulating cinematic experience. For much of the film Miller and his director of photography John Seale take down the frame rate so that the film runs at a disorientating frenetic pace. Other times they crank it up so we can revel in colourful slow-motion explosions and grisly killings.


Tom Hardy in particular stands out because he spends the first act of the film largely unable to move and masked like he got too deep into the Bane role, but Charlize Theron is exceptional as the fierce, one-handed Furiosa, channelling Alien 3-era Ellen Ripley chic.


This sort of visual storytelling relies a good deal on the physical acting and non-verbal charisma of the main actors. Tom Hardy in particular stands out because he spends the first act of the film largely unable to move and masked like he got too deep into the Bane role, but Charlize Theron is exceptional as the fierce, one-handed Furiosa, channelling Alien 3-era Ellen Ripley chic. (It’s worth mentioning here that despite the film’s title, it’s Furiosa who provides the plot’s inciting incident and Furiosa who drives it afterwards. Max is more of a supporting protagonist). Nicholas Hoult serves up a solid performance as the brainwashed, drug-addled mook Nux (‘If I’m gonna die, I’m gonna die historic on the Fury Road!’) in what’s probably his most ambitious role to date and definitely the role that required the most makeup.

Mad Max: Fury Road is high-concept, low-budget, Aussie New Wave B-movie pumped full of ephedrine and steroids. Miller mixes souped-up murder-cars, flame-throwing electric guitars and pole-vaulting junkie mooks in a manic chase sequence set against a spectacular blood-orange backdrop. Add to that heady blend a lean script and a simple, linear plot and the result is deliriously entertaining cinema.

“Ex Machina”

THE CASUAL FILMGOER MAY never have heard of Alex Garland. If they have, they might see him—unfairly—as a sort of side-kick to Danny Boyle, Garland having written the scripts for 28 Days Later, The Beach (based on his novel) and Sunshine among countless other successful films. It is ironic, really, because Garland––novelist, screenwriter, producer, video game writer and now, director–is everywhere––provided you know where to look.

Whether his reputation for elusiveness, which followed the huge success of his zeitgeist book, The Beach, had any bearing on Garland’s decision to step behind the camera we can’t know, but what we do know from his directorial debut, the cerebral thriller Ex Machina, is that Mr. Garland’s talents extend far beyond the realms of pen and paper.

Caleb (Domhall Gleeson) is a programmer at the technology giant Blue Book, a search engine responsible for ninety percent of the world’s Internet traffic. In a company lottery, he wins the chance to spend a week at the sprawling estate of the reclusive Blue Book CEO and founder, Nathan (Oscar Isaac), who wrote the search engine’s code when he was thirteen. Caleb discovers that his host doesn’t simply want to drink beer and talk coding: Nathan wants Caleb to conduct a face-to-face version of the Turing test—a test of whether an artificial being can show intelligent behaviour indistinguishable from that of a human—on his robotic creation, Ava (Alicia Vikander).

It is typical for something written by Garland to more about its characters and concepts than its plot. Ex Machina consists of a series of conversations—between Nathan and Caleb and between Caleb and Ava—for the best part of its running time, during which Caleb, as the vehicle for the viewer, tries to determine the motivations of both his drunken yet dauntingly intelligent host and his enchanting robotic test subject, and soon enough he comes to suspect that both may be misleading him.

Through these exchanges we come to know the characters, and though each conversation is revealing, the revelations are never disclosed in an obvious or heavy-handed way. The conversations are refreshingly intelligent; Garland has the trio freely discuss ideas and concepts without consideration for the viewer with no knowledge of that world. Every conversation is engaging—thrilling, even—and at the conclusion of the film there is the wholly satisfying feeling that no stone, so to speak, has been left unturned.Ex Machina

What makes Ex Machina more unsettling than other works of science fiction is its plausibility. It leads us to wonder: if we were to learn tomorrow that a reclusive Silicon Valley programmer had created something close to artificial intelligence, would we be so surprised?

Domhall Gleeson is ideally cast as Caleb, starstruck by the brilliance of his host, undeniably intelligent, but equally naive. Oscar Isaac, who is is fast becoming one of the best actors of his generation, turns in another excellent performance. It is Alicia Vikander, however, who really shines as an android on the very cusp of humanity. It is a role that necessitates a great deal of physical and verbal subtlety, but Vikander navigates this dramatic minefield imperiously.

To write much of the praise I have for this film would be to give too much away. What I can say is that this is a stylish and intelligent film with few flaws, and that Garland’s directorial career is off to an impressive start.

“A Most Violent Year”

ITS NAME ISN’T EXACTLY misleading, but if you went to see A Most Violent Year in the hope that you would see two hours and five minutes of violence, you might leave sorely disappointed. J.C. Chandor’s excellent period crime drama is a gripping and solemn account of an honourable man’s attempt to maintain his integrity against a backdrop of corruption and moral decay, and an exercise in subtlety and restraint.

The film concerns Abel Morales, played by Oscar Isaac, a fuel supplier and up-and-coming businessman who struggles to deal with the hijacking of a number of his trucks in the midst of a negotiation for a shipping terminal that would permit his operation to expand significantly. Abel’s enterprise isn’t entirely legal, strictly speaking, but neither are those of his competitors and in spite of the apparent contradition Abel sees himself as a decent man and benevolent employer determined to resist a seemingly inevitable descent into gangsterism. He learns, meanwhile, that his problems are not severe enough to merit the attention of the police department in New York City, where it is one of the most violent years on record. His underhand dealings, however, are.A Most Violent Year

The dramatic title of the film betrays its subtlety: throughout the film there is little violence but an unending sense of dread punctuated–to great effect–by brief action. Director J.C. Chandor, who also wrote the screenplay, prefers terse dialogue and veiled threats to shoot-outs and explosions; consequently when the action comes it comes loudly and it comes without warning: every gun-shot, or shattering window, or screeching of tyres is forceful and jarring.

The cinematography, courtesy of Bradford Young, depicts in gorgeous fashion a city in physical and moral decay. Alex Ebert lends low-boil tension with an understated synthesised soundtrack respectful of the film’s Eighties setting. But it is Chandor’s direction which is principal success in A Most Violent Year. He has rendered here a film that moves slowly enough to tease out the tangles of a complex narrative but never becomes dull. To say something is never dull, however, is not necessarily to say it is exciting, and what the film lacks is a little cinematic panache. The ending in particular is wholly underwhelming.

The film belongs to Oscar Isaac’s character, who wrestles with his responsibilities as a father and husband and employer, and all the while bustles about striking deals with loan sharks and police chiefs. But it also belongs in a large part to Jessica Chastain, who, in between lazy drags of a cigarette turns in a fine performance as Abel’s wife Anna, a sort of consigliere-meets-Lady Macbeth who is willing–and eager–to do the things her husband will not. Their white-hot exchanges in the immaculate rooms of the mansion that symbolises their success are the best scenes of the film.

A Most Violent Year is a strong entry in the filmographies of Isaac and Chastain, both of whom have established themselves indisputably as two of the best actors of their generation. It is also very weighty offering from director J.C. Chandor, who is marking himself to be an expert executor of truly gripping cinema.

‘The Drop’

APPARENTLY, THERE ARE bars in parts of Brooklyn that function as drop points for a given night’s mob money, which is bound to cause all sorts of problems for the poor souls who work there. In Michael R. Roskam’s lean and atmospheric thriller The Drop––based on Boston crime scribbler Dennis Lehane’s short story––those poor souls are owner Cousin Marv (James Gandolfini) and quiet bartender Bob (Tom Hardy), who complicates matters further when he decides to adopt a beaten, abandoned puppy previously owned by a drug-addled psychopath.

The story revolves almost exclusively around Bob Saginowski, a shy and soft-spoken man who seems a little on the slow side. Bob is tending bar with Cousin Marv when a couple of masked robbers take them for five grand one night; soon he’s an object of interest not only for the gang of greasy Chechen crooks who own the bar and the faux-affable detective investigating, but the junkie former owner of his scene-stealing pit bull, Rocco. There are early hints, however, that our humble hero might be more competent than he lets on. He gets to work on the disposal of a dismembered forearm like he’s done it ‘a thousand times before’, and Detective Torres (John Ortiz) notes with interest that he never takes communion. There’s one memorable shot in which Bob, his shoulders hunched, stands in a corridor under the red lights of the bar, and it does nothing if not suggest that there might be more to the man than meets the eye.


There’s one memorable shot in which Bob, his shoulders hunched, stands in a corridor under the red lights of the bar, and it does nothing if not suggest that there might be more to the man than meets the eye.


The Drop, despite having a few grisly moments, is more drama than thriller, and it burns away slowly. Roskam, who received an Oscar nod for Belgian crime flick Bullhead, puts character development and mood at the forefront of this film, which makes those infrequent moments of action all the more forceful. His direction is neat and technical, and he owes a lot to Lehane’s lean script, which rarely gives room for an unnecessary sentence. There is depth to The Drop, but the clues are subtle and easy to miss.


Roskam’s restrained direction and Lehane’s taut script are underpinned by excellent acting performances and a natural chemistry between Hardy and Gandolfini and Hardy and Noomi Rapace.


Roskam’s restrained direction and Lehane’s taut script are underpinned by excellent acting performances and a natural chemistry between Hardy and Gandolfini and Hardy and Noomi Rapace, who plays love interest Nadia. There’s a charmingly awkward exchange between Bob and Nadia while the former is out walking Rocco in a local park. ‘Where’s a pen when you need one?!’ he says uneasily, fumbling for something Nadia can use to write down her number. Gandolfini serves up a typically solid performance as a hot-headed bar owner dining out on a degree of local fame, while Matthias Schoenaerts, Roskam’s lead in Bullhead, is suitably swaggering and sinister as the dog-abusing junkie Eric Deeds.

The Drop is in many ways a simple film that rises above similar movies thanks to a taut script and a string of rich and complex performances. Gangsters and drug-addled killers always loom threateningly in the background, and though it feels thematically vague at times, its ending is its redemption. It’s a fitting final film for James Gandolfini, who died shortly after its completion.