The Revenant

Director: Alejandro G. Inarritu (2016)

Gripping, grisly and grizzly, this epic revenge western is the first must see film of 2016.

Leonardo DiCaprio goes hunting for the best actor Oscar in this thrilling and icily apocalyptic adventure.

Despite his best efforts, notably his portrayal of a ravenous financier in The Wolf of Wall Street (2014), the Academy award has so far eluded him.

But on this form as fur trapper and explorer Hugh Glass, there’s every chance he’ll bag it.

While on an expedition in the uncharted Northern frontier, Glass is brutally mauled by a bear.

I could barely endure the ferocious scene as the angry beast tears away at Glass with it’s hot breath steaming the camera lens.

He just about survives only to see his son murdered and find himself abandoned.

Driven by his pain and suffering Glass begins a 200 mile odyssey across the wild, wild west, intent on killing the man who betrayed him.

On the lonesome trail Glass endures being washed away, buried alive, burned and stabbed.

There’s visceral violence and dialogue as sparse and unforgiving as the environment.

For those who aren’t convinced by DiCaprio’s acting ability, they should see how much he conveys here while speaking very little.

Meanwhile as an old native American leads a war party in search of his missing daughter, a party of French hunters are wreaking destruction across the landscape and complicating Glass’ progress.

A huddle of orphaned children, murdered sons, forgotten wives and rich fathers are offered as a limited backstory for various characters, tying them together in a litany of loss.

With long stretches of screen time dialogue free, character is conveyed though action. The principals are aware of the conflicts in the damnable choices they face.

A trio of British actors offer brilliant support to DiCaprio.

With Mad Max: Fury Road (2015), Legend (2015) and Locke (2014) Tom Hardy is enjoying a great run of projects.

He plays the pipe smoking trapper Fitzgerald, a vicious pragmatist rather than evil incarnate.

Even more blessed with an uncanny knack of choosing great projects is the likeable, versatile and always interesting Domhnall Gleeson.

He comes of age as Captain Henry, the leader of the hunting expedition who is out of his depth.

Will Poulter is Jim Bridger, the youngest of the troop and arguably the closest it carries to a conscience.

Editor Stephen Mirrione previously worked on Birdman (2015) and won an Oscar for Steven Soderbergh’s Traffic (2000).

His signature long edits create an intensive immediacy and putting us uncomfortably in the centre of the action.

Cinematography Emmanuel Lubezki won consecutive Oscars for Gravity (2014) and Birdman (2015) and may well earn a third here.

Director Inarritu won best film, director and screenplay Oscars for Birdman (2015) and it would it not be undeserved if he repeated the trick in 2016, though in the adapted screenplay not original screenplay category as in Birdman (2015).

As in Birdman (2015) Lubezki’s ceaselessly circling camera work puts us in the middle of the action whether on horseback, on boats or underwater.

We witness an avalanche, rape, castration, shoot outs, knife fights, a hanging, a massacre and the aftermath of several more.

The landscape is alive with moose, wolves, horses, fish, buffalo and ants, demonstrating how ill geared humanity is to surviving in this fierce winter wonderland.

Set in Wyoming the production went snow chasing through Canada, the United States and Argentina to achieve the frostbitten extremes of the American frontier.

Grounded in fire, rock and ice, the elemental force of the film is captured in blues,whites and greys, with explosive moments of orange punctuating the palette.

Visual reference points are Robert Altman’s McCabe And Mrs Miller (1971) and Werner Herzog’s Aguirre: Wrath of God (1972).

Thematically the story draws on Ridley Scott’s Gladiator (2000) and John Ford’s The Searchers (1956). It is based on Michael Punke’s 2002 novel of the same name inspired by the exploits of the real Hugh Glass.

Ideas of commerce and colonisation swirl around the contemporary issues of the ownership of natural resources, the conflict between races and the role of the military in a civil society.

The Revenant means ‘the returned’ and refers to a person who comes back from the dead.

It sounds like a combination of ‘revenge’ and ‘covenant’, god’s code of behaviour issued to Moses in the Old Testament.

These two ideas compete within Glass for supremacy as he battles towards his prey.

Glimpses of Glass’ late wife through fragments of memories remind us of his spirituality even as he symbolically swathes himself in bearskin.

Eating its flesh shows his growing connection with the environment but also suggests a departure from the rational to an animal state.

In fables there is always a limit to how long one can adopt the shape of another creature before losing one’s humanity for ever.

Glass’ quest for revenge becomes a battle for his soul from which he may never recover.

A chilling final frame questions the audience as to how they would behave in Glass’ circumstances. It’s an electrifying end to a remarkably realised endeavour.

@ChrisHunneysett

Legend

Director: Brian Helgeland (2015)

This barnstorming biopic of cockney crime lords the Krays is a double barrelled blast of brutal and funny entertainment.

The exhausted tale of London’s most infamous gangsters is given a fresh impetus by a pair of magnetic performances by Tom Hardy as twins Reggie and Ronnie.

So well defined are their characters at times I forgot I was watching the same actor.

London is in transition from fifties post war austerity to the swinging sixties. The Krays see an opportunity to expand from their poor East end roots to the moneyed lights of the celebrity-filled West end.

We see their rise through the eyes of Reggie’s wife Frances. Their mother who normally looms large in their legend is a minor figure.

The script rockets through the boys’ rivalries with the Richardson mob, their dealings with the mafia and the murder of Jack ‘the hat’ McVitie.

Reggie is the older of the brothers, a charmer with brains. He’s an ambitiously ruthless businessman who owns clubs, runs protection rackets and wants to break into the casino trade.

Ron is a philosopher fool with fists of iron. His tenuous grasp of reality and impulsive behaviour are disastrous for those nearest to him.

Though unquestionably devoted to each other, the nearest the boys come to affection is beating seven bells out of each other.

Their fall is framed as a tragedy with Greek references peppering conversations.

Reggie is seemingly destined for great things but is thwarted by his love for his brother Ronnie; the most unpredictable of loose cannons.

Frances is a fragile pill-popping poppet who struggles as her husband fails to become the straight businessman he professes he wants to be.

Ozzie actress Emily Browning is fine but forced to deliver a terribly written and utterly unnecessary voice over. It ruins every scene it witters over.

Tara Fitzgerald plays her disapproving mother and antagonises Reggie by wearing black to their wedding.

Prime Minister Harold Wilson is played with pipe-wielding gusto by Kevin McNally. Christopher Eccleston is always two steps behind as Keystone cop Detective Superintendent ‘Nipper’ Read.

There’s great support all round from Colin Morgan, David Thewlis, Paul Anderson, Taron Egerton and Chazz Palminteri. The latter plays Angelo Bruno, the head of the Philadelphia crime family with whom the twins strike a lucrative deal.

The occasionally larky tone may chafe with those who believe it inappropriate in a story where real people are murdered.

However it’s titled Legend for a reason. It makes no attempt to be definitive or exhaustingly accurate. Nor does it offer an apology for not being so.

It presents a glamourised, heightened view of a specific period and is anchored by the emotional truth it offers of the twins’ complex relationship.

Write-director Brian Helgeland won Best Screenplay Oscar for LA Confidential (1997), more recently he wrote Ridley Scott‘s Robin Hood and Paul Greengrass’ Green Zone. (Both 2010.)

Previously he directed Mel Gibson in the thriller Payback (1999) and baseball biopic 42 (2013).

Legend is extremely confident and ambitiously crafted. There is excellent production design by Tom Conroy and gorgeous costume by Caroline Harris.

The dynamic soundtrack and expertly executed camera moves are hugely influenced by Martin Scorsese’s gangster epic Goodfellas (1990).

HIs famous Copacabana tracking shot is transplanted to Frances’s introduction to Reggie’s club. It’s one of several ambitious and expertly executed camera moves.

It’s the work Brit cinematographer Dick Pope was Oscar nominated last year for Mr Tuner and is a regular Mike Leigh collaborator.

Hardy is currently 3 to 1 to be the next James Bond, but on this showing he might just be too good an actor.

London Road

Director: Rufus Norris (2015)

Based on the Suffolk Strangler killings, this bleak and complex musical drama is an admiral adaption of the National Theatre production of the same name.

In late 2006 Steve Wright murdered five Ipswich prostitutes and the film explores the peculiarly and resolutely British response to the crimes.

All the words spoken and sung are taken from recordings of contemporary interviews, with the locals expressing a confusion of thoughts and fears.

Following an arrest the police cordon off part of their street and a house is boarded up. Helicopters, paparazzi and news-teams invade the quiet close.

The residents struggle with the massive intrusion and the way their area is portrayed in the national media. Some people sell up and leave.

There’s sympathy – not particularly in the words – for the working girls who have been killed and for those remaining on the streets.

The greatest condemnation is reserved for the rubberneckers outside court waiting the suspect to arrive.

In the mire of despair a sense of community takes root. Watered with copious cups of tea it flowers into a gardening contest.

Olivia Colman leads the excellent cast and is supported by Kate Fleetwood, Clare Burt and Paul Thornley.

As a taxi driver called Mark actor Tom Hardy is behind the wheel of a car for the third film in a row – following Locke (2014) and Mad Max: Fury Road (2015).

As the biggest name in the cast he is all over the promotional material and is excellent in his very brief role.

Clear directorial vision uses fine performances, stilted choreography and muted colours to create an unsettling, paranoid tone which fills the dramatic gap created by the lack of input from either the victims or the villain.

The tunes are repetitive and insistent. As the worried, angry voices rise in a percussive chorus, the use of short focus wide lens and leering close-ups make for a disturbingly intense experience.

That’s fine, it’s a horrible subject deserving an appropriate, intelligent treatment. But the consistently downbeat atmosphere is wearing and makes for a demanding watch.

Although the finale is painted in primary colours, the tone is far closer to a requiem or a wake than a celebration.

Mad Max: Fury Road

Director: George Miller (2015)

This barkingly brilliant reboot of the 1979 action classic brings the Road Warrior thundering back into cinemas in a cacophonous cloud of craziness.

Writer/director George Miller returns and though the central character is a former cop called Max (Britain’s Tom Hardy in the role Mel Gibson made famous) there are few connections to the original trilogy.

The Mad Max franchise began with the low budget Mad Max (1979) followed up with the western influenced Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior (1981) before concluding with the weak Beyond Thunderdome (1985) which co-starred Tina Turner.

This is altogether a bigger, badder and more bonkers movie. Clearly there was a meeting where all ideas were left on the table and ended up on the screen.

A reckless pursuit of spectacular entertainment which could have easily ended up as a six lane motorway pile-up. It’s credit to Miller and his team we’re not watching another Dune (1984) or Jupiter Ascending (2015).

They’ve created a frantic metal circus on wheels and populated it with clowns, midgets, acrobats, showgirls and bare-chested warriors. Then they’ve sent it blasting across the desert to the power chords of it’s own onboard guitarist.

An exhilarating chase, it is far closer in epic sweep, energy and colour to Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto (2006) with which it would make a dazzling demented double-bill. Gibson has no connection to this production.

It’s another left turn for Miller who directed Babe (1995) the charming family fantasy about a talking pig. He then went on to win the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature for Happy Feet (2006).

The  script is co-written by artist Brendan McCarthy who first achieved success as an artist on 2000AD‘s Judge Dredd comic strip. Dredd himself was visually influenced in part by the poster for Death Race 2000 (1975) which itself was an influence on the first Mad Max movie.

The dialogue is as sparse and hard as the desert location with location work in Namibia, South Africa and Miller’s native Australia – where the first films were made.

Miller is aided in his pursuit of a no-holds barred cinema experience by cinematographer John Seale, editor Margaret Sixel and production designer Colin Gibson.

Seale’s colour palate is dominated by blues and oranges with controlled explosions of white and green, a moving canvas created with the absolute control of Mondrian. His saturated colour levels add to the intensity of the action.

Sixel’s manic and itchy editing puts us inside the addled mind of Max. Although it generates a ferocious pace it allows time for us to draw breath before the next assault on our senses.

Colin Gibson’s designs are nasty, brutal and far from beautiful – but they are brilliant. 150 wildly different vehicles are fused from different eras and give a new meaning to the expression ‘hybrid motor’.

The greatest of them is Furiosa’s War RIg, a character in itself and one resembling a giant rusting Ninky Nonk. There are also design nods to The Cars That Ate Paris (1974) and The Dark Crystal (1982).

Dutch multi-instrumentalist, producer Junkie XL provide an incredible, raucous, unforgiving soundtrack.

There’s conspicuous CGI to facilitate the 3D experience but the CGI used for the background vistas is convincingly realised.

In the original film, Max is driven to righteous anger by the murder of his family – this time he is insane from the start; a feral, lizard-eating animal. He gradually acquires a new identity and Max’s emerging sanity is reflected through his shifting appearance.

Interested only in his personal survival, Max is haunted by the loss of his daughter in the oil wars that have turned the world into a barren wasteland. It’s a post-apocalyptic future and all resources are in short supply, especially gasoline and water.

Captured by the tribe of War Boys, Max is made a slave of the Citadel and chained to a warrior called Nux (Nicholas Hoult) who is farming Max for his blood.

The Citadel is a water-producing fiefdom owned by Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne – he played the psycopathic villain Toecutter in the first film). People are property; cattle for producing milk, blood and babies.

Max escapes and reluctantly teams up with the renegade Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron) who’s stolen a War Rig and a tanker full of precious fuel.

Also on board are are Immortan Joe’s five wives. He’s not best pleased at losing his valuable property and unleashes three heavily armed war parties to bring them back.

The wives are angelic beauties who possess economical clothing and extravagant names  – such as The Splendid Angharad (Rosie Huntington-Whiteley).

Whereas the rest of the toothless population are blistered and ravaged by disease, these girls resemble chastity belt-wearing Victoria Secrets models.

Though suspicious of each other Max and Furiosa team up to and what follows is a ridiculously rollicking race from A to B across the desert to the Green Zone of Furiosa’s youth.

There is no romance but through deeds not words the two lost souls begin a healing process in each other. Character is action and there is nothing here but character and action.

Both are the product of a tight script and propelled by demented performances. The actors are uniformly excellently, especially the three leads; Hardy, Theron and Hoult.

Hoult puts his youthful zeal to good use and commits to the madness in a strikingly physical performance and also contributes much to the tender heart of the film.

Theron eschews glamour for cast-iron attitude and she’s as damaged and driven as Max; a feminine hard-nut to rival Ellen Ripley of Aliens (1986).

Although women are treated badly they are portrayed as tough, courageous, resourceful, compassionate and in all ways the equal of men.

In Locke (2013) Hardy did nothing but talk – here he barely talks at all, mostly grunting and occasionally barking out demands.

The mythology is as patched together as the vehicles and just as entertaining. The name Fury Road is an allusion to the Greek furies; goddesses of vengeance – Furiosa is their battle-hardened representative on Earth.

Her cargo of wives represent the classical virtues, identified by Furiosa as hope, life and redemption. The War Boys seek a glorious death to enter their viking Valhalla.

Though madness screams from every character, scene and stunt, it’s optimistic about humanity’s return from the brink of destruction and offers green shoots of hope.

In conception and execution this is a thrill-ride of chaos, an extraordinarily epic and apocalyptic nitrous charge of pure cinema.

You’d be mad to miss it.