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Mad Max Fury Road VehiclesWe are less than two weeks from the UK release of Mad Max Fury Road.  A film that has been in production for what seems like ever.  There were rumours of a fourth film as long ago as Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (1985).  I wrote about it five years ago with an expected release in 2012 or 2013.  I picked up the story in 2012, beyond the time when the film should have been released, it hadn’t even begun shooting.  They should have started primary location filming in Broken Hill, New South Wales, the same as the original movies.  Production was first delayed by heavy rain, then a big decision was taken.  The unprecedented rain turned the desolate desert landscape into a lush green and flower filled garden making it aesthetically unsuitable. Production moved to Namibia.  Anyone who has seen Richard Stanley’s B movie masterpiece Dust Devil will know that it will make a suitable alternative.mad max fury road charlize theron tom hardy

By this time the cast was largely in place with Tom Hardy will be taking over from Mel Gibson as the eponymous antihero Max Rockatansky and Charlize Theron with a well publicised shaved head in an unnamed but significant role.  Young up and coming actors Nicholas Hoult, Zoë Kravitz, Rosie Huntington-Whiteley and Riley Keough (granddaughter of Elvis and Priscilla Presley) were also cast. The big question was if Mel Gibson would cameo.  Ultimately, it appears he won’t.Mad Max Zoë Kravitz  Rosie Huntington Whiteley Riley Keough

At the time the plot was kept under wraps but the implication was that the film would be a direct sequel following on from Beyond Thunderdome.  This seemed plausible in one way as Hardy is a little older than Gibson was in 1985.  However pre production shots and video keep showing Max’s 1973 Ford Falcon XB GT “Pursuit Special”, the car that was destroyed in the second film.  This led to speculation that the film would be set between the first and second films or a reboot.  At the time I suggested a middle ground, rather than reboot the series, make a new series with new character, similar to Max but not Max, set around the same time in a different part of Australia.mad max fury road ford falcon

It was finally revealed last year that it would be a reboot. Director George Miller suggesting too much time had passed for a sequel and there would be too many continuity issues and creativity restrictions to set a film between any of the existing films.  Interestingly he hasn’t gone back to the beginning of the story, this makes a lot of sense.  The events of the first film are integral to the character, but why return after thirty years to retell the same story.  This suggests the film could be a direct sequel to Mad Max rebooting Max Max 2.  One of the most interesting things about the film is the casting of Hugh Keays-Byrne as Immortan Joe.  A new big bad in the vein of The Humungus from Mad Max 2.  Fans of the original Mad Max trilogy will know Keays-Byrne as “Toecutter” the head of the biker gang.  Are the two characters connected?Hugh Keays-Byrne  mad max

George Miller has compared the finished film to westerns and has said he intended it to be an almost a continuous chase.  This sounds very much like the second part of Mad Max 2.  The best thing is his claim that 90% of the effects were practical.  If done effectively, this could result in a truly exciting action movie a world away from the soulless and meaningless CGI we are used to from directors like Michael Bay.  I will be there on 14th May and may even splash out for the Imax version, it’s just a shame it will be in 3D. If you aren’t as excited as me take a look at the trailer:

I have enjoyed all ten movies I have seen this month, but one stands out as a joyous and timeless classic of its genre, which will be movie of the month?

Fast & Furious 7: The franchise has morphed beyond all recognition since its first incarnation fourteen years ago.  Made under the shadow of the untimely death of star Paul Walker the film is totally stupid and but is tremendous fun. In the month since I saw it, it has clocked up over a billion dollars.fast and furious 7

While We’re Young: Noah Baumbach’s comedy drama combines the themes of a midlife crisis with intergenerational jealousy.  It has more than a whiff of Woody Allen and is as good as Allens best of recent years.  Ben Stiller has again proved to be a good actor with the right material.While We're Young

John Wick: Bonkers over stylised ultraviolent revenge thriller.  Breaking from the current trend of fast cutting the film has some of the best fight scenes in recent memory.  Keanu Reeves is perfect taking on elements of many of his previous characters.John Wick Keanu Reeves

Cinderella: Kenneth Branagh’s live action take on a story we have seem many times before.  On the surface it is very vanilla and by the numbers, this is what will probably make it timeless.  Cate Blanchett and  Helena Bonham Carter are great and have fun in the more showy roles, Lily James and Derek Jacobi give great performances.CINDERELLA

Good Kill: Back in 1986, Tom Cruise’s character Vincent in The Color of Money spoke about gamers being the future of warfare.  More recently he has suggested that a Top Gun sequel would involve drones.  Gattaca director Andrew Niccol has beat them to it, reteaming with Ethan Hawke.  A gripping story that could possibly be the first truly modern war films.  It is however a little to low key for its own good.Good Kill

The Woman in Gold: Despite the well known story and the terrible trailer, it is actually a decent film.  Helen Mirren is good but her Austrian accent distracting.  The wartime scenes with Orphan Black’s Tatiana Maslany are better than the modern day scenes.The Woman in Gold

The Salvation: Surprisingly for a film shot in South Africa and directed by Danish Dogme95 director Kristian Levring The Salvation is one of the best westerns of recent years.  Mads Mikkelsen and Eva Green are both excellent.the unforgiven mads mikkelsen

Avengers: Age of Ultron: There is so much going on with ever expanding cast and a plot that not only has to tell a coherent story but also has to open threads for several future films.  It is a miracle that Joss Whedon keeps so many plates spinning.  As with previous films, Scarlett Johansson’s Natasha Romanoff / Black Widow is still the most interesting character.Avengers Age of Ultron

Child 44: Based on Tom Rob Smith’s acclaimed debut novel of the same name, that in turn was based on real events.  Well acted particularly by leads Tom Hardy and Noomi Rapace but let down by an unfocused story and a lack of direction.Child 44

The Falling: British coming of age drama set in a girls school.  To many viewers Maisie Williams will be the most recognisable thatnks to her part in Game of Thrones, Maxine Peake is as brilliant as you would expect, but newcomer Florence Pugh is the most memorable.  I have heard criticism of the final act, for me this is one of the strongest things about the film that helps it linger in the mind.The Falling

It wasn’t a difficult choice, movie of the month is:John Wick

In the last few weeks Fast & Furious 7 has gone over $1billion at the world box-office making it the 20th film to achieve the milestone, the others are: Titanic, The Avengers, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2, Frozen, Iron Man 3, Transformers: Dark of the Moon, The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, Skyfall, Transformers: Age of Extinction, The Dark Knight Rises, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest, Toy Story 3, Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, Jurassic Park, Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace, Alice in Wonderland, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, The Dark Knight. But it is unlikely to be the biggest film of the year.  In fact  2015 could be the biggest year for blockbusters ever.

The contenders to join the billion dollar club are:

Fast & Furious 7: $1.2billion and counting!fast and furious 7

Avengers: Age of Ultron has just been released and is brilliant.  The perfect blend of the darker tone seen in Captain America: The Winter Soldier (that took over $700million last year) and the fun of and the fun we have come to expect from the Marvel Cinematic Universe.  Given the fact The Avengers (2012)  took $1.518 billion, they will be looking for more this time.Avengers Age of Ultron

Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens should be a shoe in for the $1billion club.  The original Star Wars (1977) took over $700million, when adjusted for inflation and modern ticket prices it is well over the billion mark and the second highest grossing film of all time.  It won’t be the first Star Wars film to top $1billion, the first of the prequels The Phantom Menace (1999) got there first.Star Wars Episode VII  The Force Awakens

In 2012 Skyfall became the first Bond film to top $1billion, with Sam Mendes returning as a director and Daniel Craig heading a fantastic cast, Spectre could be the second.Spectre

Jurassic Park (2003) broke the billion dollar bracket on its re-release a few years back, adjusted for inflation, it would probably have done it on fist release.  With this in mind and a $150million+ budget the makers of Jurassic World must be hoping for something approaching the billion dollar mark.Jurassic World

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 2 should be good for around $800million. The final Harry Potter film broke $1billion so I wouldn’t discount the possibility of Mockingjay joining the club too.mockingjay

Minions is a prequel/spin-off to Despicable Me (2010) and is will probably smash the half billion dollars the original film took.  I don’t think it will make a billion dollars but you never know.Minions

Thanks to the licences Marvel sold before Marvel Studios emerged, The Fantastic Four is described as a 20th Century Fox/Marvel Entertainment release.  It may not be part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but it is riding on their coattails and will be looking for something north of $750million.  The casting looks good, but it’s going to need positive reviews to come close that figure thanks to the week first attempts at Fantastic Four movies.The Fantastic Four

The Salvation

There is an ongoing theme in the films of western master John Ford, this theme is basically the birth of America.  Ford’s westerns looked very much to the west, his characters were making their way out west or his stories a metaphor for their journey. But his characters were very American.  But so many of the people who made the journey out west in the nineteenth century had started their journey much further east, in Europe.  Two and half centuries after the Mayflower America was still a country being built on immigrants and inhabited by immigrants.  Danish director Kristian Levring has captured the essence of both Ford and the era with a European character at its heart.the salvation poster

Set in the 1870’s after seven years, Danish settler Jon is being joined by his wife and child.  On the way home they their paths cross with a stranger that begins a downward spiral of events.  I don’t want to spoil the plot any further, but the fact it is a revenge movie tells you as much as you need to know.the salvation mads mikkelsen

There was a time when westerns were genre movies churned out with huge regularity and varying quality, these days they are less common and tend to be a labours of love.  Like so many modern westerns, it is impossible to watch without comparing it to classics of the genre but this isn’t always a bad thing.  In The Salvation you can see elements of other great westerns.  The against odds defiance of Howard Hawks Rio Bravo (1959), the impending doom of Fred Zinnemann’s High Noon (1952), the evil spectre of big business of Sergio Leone’s Once Upon A Time In The West (1968) and most of all the revenge of Clint Eastwood’s High Plains Drifter (1973) and The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976).  But there is something else going on; more than just a subtext, like Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch (1969) there is a sense of things coming to an end, that things will never be the same again, an end of innocence.eva green

Mads Mikkelsen is perfectly cast, his stoic performance is exactly what the film needs, mirroring the harsh landscape and brutal story.  Forgoing the flamboyance of Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained (2012) for a more classic western, but don’t think this is Dogme goes west (Kristian Levring is one of the founders of the Dogme95 movement).  This is a stylish and stylised movie.  The presence of Eva Green is a masterstroke.  I was initially dubious of casting an actress with such an amazing voice in a silent role.  Like Rinko Kikuchi in Babel and Olga Kurylenko in Centurion she manages to be the most interesting character in the film.  There are a couple of moments a simple and slight turn of the head conveys as much as five minutes of dialogue.  She manages this twice in the film with two different meanings.the salvation eva green

It isn’t a film to bring new people to the genre but fans of westerns will love it.  I think I wrote my article Best Westerns Since Unforgiven a few weeks too early as this would have made the shortlist.the salvation

I have never believed in the idea of a guilty pleasure, you either like something or you don’t, and if you like something tell people that you like it and why.  That said I do sometimes enjoy films that I know aren’t very good.  The Fast and the Furious is a series that has certainly had its ups and downs with the highpoint probably being Fast Five (2011).

I recently recommended Furious 7 to someone who likes dumb action movies, only to discover he had not seen any of the previous films.  He asked which of the previous films he should watch before seeing the latest and possibly final outing.  My suggestion;  you ideally need to see Fast & Furious 6 to understand the motivation of Furious 7. On reflection, as already mentioned  Fast Five is the best film, and sets up Fast & Furious 6.  This is when I came to the concussion that the series forms two distinct trilogies.

Brian’s Trilogy

The Fast and the Furious (2001): A rehash of the plot of Point Break, introduces the characters and has some good action scenes.  The plot centres around illegal street racing and vehicular heists. Brian O’Conner (Paul Walker) is an undercover police officer and Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel) his prime suspect, basically the Keanu Reeves and Patrick Swayze characters from Point Break.  The relationships are complicated as Brian falls for  Mia Toretto (Jordana Brewster) Dominic’s sister.The Fast and the Furious

2 Fast 2 Furious (2003): the departure of the biggest star of the series Vin Diesel leaving Paul Walker to carry the story on his own.  The film introduced Tyrese Gibson possibly intended as a replacement for Diesel, a character has gone through a metamorphic change and in the later films became a buffoon offering little more than comic relief.  After being on the run since the end of the first film the plot sees Brian O’Conner, forced to return to the right side of the law to bring down a drug lord.2 Fast 2 Furious

Fast & Furious (2009) aka Fast & Furious 4: The return of the original cast. Brian is now working for the FBI, his and Dominic Toretto’s paths soon cross following the death of Letty Ortiz (Michelle Rodriguez), Toretto’s girlfriend from the first film.Fast & Furious

Dominic’s Trilogy

Fast Five (2011) aka Fast & Furious 5 or Fast & Furious 5: Rio Heist: Picking up after the events of Fast & Furious, Mia and Brian lead an assault on the bus transporting Dominic to prison.  The convoluted plot of the events that follow include the introduction of U.S. DSS agent Luke Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson) and a audacious robbery in Rio.   It has been suggested that the plot comes from an unused script for a sequel to The Italian Job (2003).  As mentioned, probably the best of the series.Fast Five

Fast & Furious 6 (2013) aka Furious 6 or Fast Six: Letty returns from the dead and Hobbs enlists Toretto and his “family” to bring down criminal Owen Shaw (Luke Evans).  As the budget goes up, the stunts get bigger and more silly.Fast & Furious 6

Furious 7 (2015) aka Fast & Furious 7: Deckard Shaw (Jason Statham, the brother of Owen Shaw is out for revenge following events of the previous film.  The story had to be reworked to work around the untimely death of star Paul Walker.  The stunts or more outrageous than ever but are pure fun.  If it is the final film in the series it is a fitting conclusion.Furious 7

This leaves The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift (2006), although referred to in other movies this film can stand on its own and the other six films can exist without it.  An American high school student discovers drift racing when he is forced to like with his farther in Tokyo to avoid jail.  The film looks good and the racing is well shot but bad acting is terrible particularly from leading man Sean Boswell (Lucas Black).  Look out for martial arts legend Sonny Chiba as a Yakuza boss.  If you want to see a film about drift racing check out the Japanese movie Initial D – Drift Racer (2005). The Fast and the Furious Tokyo Drift

If you haven’t already seen them, it is worth a look for fans of car movies and action movies.  My one huge reservation is the excessive destruction of classic cars.

There is a trend in filmmaking to jump on a popular bandwagon.  Every successful film or idea has countless imitators.  Think of all the films that followed The Matrix or the current glut of comic book movies.  One of the trends that has dominated the last decade of action films is the hand held camera and staccato editing perfected by Paul Greengrass in The Bourne Supremacy.  While it worked in that film it has been used countless times to less success.  Done well clever and quick editing has the ability to make any actor appear to be able to fight like Bruce Lee but taken the balletic beauty away from action films.  We started to see a return to a more traditional action in Steven Soderbergh’s Haywire (2011) .  He was able to do this having built a film around former MMA fighter Gina Carano, he could stand back with a static camera and let her show her fighting ability.  Matthew Vaughn repeated the trick earlier this year with the fantastically choreographed church scene in Kingsman: The Secret Service.  While other films have prided themselves on the high number of edits within a scene, Kingsman actually disguised the cuts making the takes look longer than  they actually are.  But that film made the camera a character moving around the heart of the action.  These could well have been the early stages of a new direction, a direction that has really taken shape in the form of Keanu Reeves’ revenge thriller John Wick.John Wick  Keanu Reeves and Adrianne Palicki

Directors Chad Stahelski and David Leitch have a background in stunt work and have spent the past work in second unit direction.  Stahelski was Keanu Reeves stunt double on the Matrix.  While the story is reminiscent of Payback (1999) (or previous incarnations of Donald E. Westlake’s novel The Hunter) or any one of the Taken films, stylistically it has far more in common with Hong Kong action from the late 80’s and early 90’s, films from directors like Tsui Hark, John Woo and Ringo Lam.  They turned action, violence and bloodshed into art, Chow Yun-Fat carving his way through his enemies with a gun in each hand became as much a dance as a fight.  These films had a huge influence on Hollywood and European cinema and can be seen in films like Die Hard (1988), Nikita (1990), Point Break(1991) and El Mariachi (1992)/Desperado (1995).chow yun fat a better tomorrow

But like any art movement it didn’t stand still, it developed.  Paul Greengrass and the Jason Bourne movies weren’t a new direction, they were a development of what started in Hong Kong in the 80’s.  This is why John Wick may also not be a change in direction but just a steppingstone to the development of the genre.  The thing that holds directors back from the John Wick approach is simple, it is easier to build a fight scene in the edit than it is to choreograph one.  There will be other films that take a lead from John Wick and many that don’t, but it could be an exciting time.John Wick Keanu Reeves

The one thing I haven’t mentioned, the one key thing.  For the film to influence others it needs to be both good and successful, is it?  A moderate hit on its domestic release that has gained a cult following. In the UK it has been well received.  There appears to be at least one sequel on the way.  A revenge film with both more humour and more humanity than taken and its copycats.  A action film with a sense of fun.  A violent and poetic real world fantasy that looks like a comic book on the screen.  Keanu Reeves is brilliant in a part that he is perfect for but with a world weary edge that he couldn’t have done  a few years ago.

After watching The Homesman (2014) last year and hearing writer, director, star Tommy Lee Jones declare that it isn’t a Western has got me thinking about the genre.  Simon Mayo asked the question “is it the best western since Unforgiven (1992)?” Mark Kermode suggested that honour goes to The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007), a choice I’m not totally sure I agree with but equally find it hard to argue with.The Homesman

With Unforgiven, did Clint Eastwood reinvent, rejuvenate, or kill the Western? Winner of Best Picture and Best Director Oscars just two years after Kevin Costner had achieved the same with Dances with Wolves (1990).  Unforgiven is dedicated to “Sergio and Don.” Sergio Leone and Don Siegal, the men who created the persona and legend that Eastwood had become.  By the time he made the Unforgiven, he had sat on the script for over fifteen years until he felt ready to direct and old enough to star.   One of the men responsible for creating Eastwood’s image, Don Siegel also directed The Shootist (1976) the final film of the genre’s other legend John Wayne.  In that instance star and director came to blows, keen to preserve his image insisted a scene be reedited: “I’ve made over 250 pictures and have never shot a guy in the back. Change it.” an interesting stance considering that Wayne had shot people in the back in several movies including one of his best, The Searchers(1956).  Directing and staring at the height of his career, Eastwood isn’t concerned and gives us a darker and grittier film with a “hero” in William Munny who is “a killer of women and children.”Unforgiven

So what has this meant for the genre.  have we had two decades of classic westerns or did it indeed kill the genre? There have been a few really good conventional westerns: Tombstone (1993), Wyatt Earp (1994), Ride with the Devil (1999) (possibly Ang Lee’s best western), The Missing (2003), Open Range (2003), 3:10 to Yuma (2007) (remaking a classic into an action adventure) and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007) (too poetic and dreamy to be truly considered a conventional western), Appaloosa (2008), Meek’s Cutoff (2010), True Grit (2010). -

It is when you step away from the conventions and cliché’s of the genre that you get the most memorable movies.  Films that are most definitely westerns but not just westerns:  Maverick (1994), a comedy western that reworked a TV show to great effect. Dead Man (1995), Jim Jarmusch’s fever dream of a western starring Johnny Depp before he believe his own press.  The Quick and the Dead (1995), Sam Raimi’s high concept B western with a great cast. Lone Star (1996) great modern day western from John Sayles set in a Texas border town.  The Claim (2000), Michael Winterbottom relocates Thomas Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge to the California Gold Rush.  The Proposition (2005), brutal but brilliant Australian western directed by John Hillcoat and written by Nick Cave.  The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada (2005), classy Texas set modern day western written and directed by as well as starring Tommy Lee Jones.  Brokeback Mountain (2005) Ang Lee’s better known western has great performances from all four leads.  There Will Be Blood (2007), Paul Thomas Anderson’s western set against the backdrop of the early days of the oil industry.  Django Unchained (2012) Quentin Tarantino re-imagines Sergio Corbucci’s ultraviolent western with devastating effect.The Claim

My favourite western since Unforgiven is No Country for Old Men (2007), one of, if not my favourite movie from Joel and Ethan Coen came after two of their weakest films (Intolerable Cruelty and The Ladykillers).  Set in 1980’s Texas and based on the Cormac McCarthy of the same name.  The film is violent and often melancholic, but it is also poetic and deeply, darkly funny.  The thing you don’t expect from the Coen’s, it just feels so real.  When I did my top ten movies of the decade five years ago, it didn’t make the list.  If I were to redo the list today it probably would.  The Pair returned to the genre in 2010 with True Grit.no country for old men

The truth probably that cinema has moved on and westerns are out of fashion, but once in a while a great one comes around to make us nostalgic for Ford, Peckinpah, Hawks or Leone.

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