Return to Sender – a review

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There’s a definite feeling with Return to Sender that person(s) behind the scenes have strategically positioned this film in order to cash in on the considerable success and critical acclaim that surrounded last year’s Gone Girl. Now, there’s nothing wrong in that, using another offering as a platform to boost your own, but it does raise the whiff of suspicion that maybe there was a reason why this film was made back in 2013 but is only being released now. That reason, regrettably, is that this one isn’t that good.

Rosamund Pike stars as a hard-working nurse with aspirations of becoming a surgeon. Cue some predictably jovial hospital worker cohorts and various introductory scenes to establish her character which never really make it clear if she is liked or not. Pike’s American accent feels awfully familiar to those who saw her Amy Dunne; this performance serving, possibly, as a feature length casting call to bigger and better things.

Nick Nolte plays Pike’s father and huskily growls his way through his scenes with the usual intense gravitas but surprisingly turns out to be the pivotal performance; the only solidly consistent and coherent cog in what is an otherwise tonally meandering and ever-changing machine. Nolte shows, albeit at times admittedly hard to understand, the softer side that lives beneath the many hardened layers of his veteran grizzle. And it’s quite affecting, seeing such a familiar powerhouse (just watch 48 Hrs. again) displaying a more sensitive bent and channelling it with control and relative finesse, turning out to be among the only treats on offer.

Unfortunately it’s that word ‘predictably’ that ultimately gobbles up any semblance of originality or impact this story feigned to conjure. Pike is established as neurotic to the point of displaying obsessive compulsive behaviour; she is popular, talented and attractive but essentially alone. She has a blind date set up for her but when a man, Shiloh Fernandez, turns up early at her house things rapidly spiral out of control, resulting in a life-shattering and irrevocable incident.

Pike’s relationship with Fernandez is the crux of the whole film. And it falls flat and foul of a disingenuous emotional connection. The turning point between them feels oddly empty and not the momentous change of gear you would expect from all the build up that preceded. It’s paced poorly and stitched together incongruously, leaving everything feeling trite and hollow. All the pieces of the puzzle are in the right place but the picture they resemble just isn’t that impressive. The finale, in particular, is a conundrum. Although plausibly powerful in its succinctness, you can’t help but just want a bit more from it. Just as it gets interesting they lower the curtain!

With glimpses of something worth watching and Rosamund Pike on screen, it’s not all bad. Return to Sender could have been an adequate TV movie from a bygone decade. As it is, it’s average to the point of being disappointing.

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Mad Max: Fury Road – a review

Did I leave the gas on...

Did I leave the gas on…

Mad Max: Fury Road picks you up from the very first scene and never once lets you go; tossing you from side to side, gripping like a rabid dog, until it’s good and done with you, which only happens by the very last scene.

If you know the original Mad Max films then you’ll be familiar with the post-apocalyptic landscape here. If not, then you’re thrown straight in and never given more explanation than ‘things went wrong on Earth and now things are wrong on Earth’. People chase other people, catch them and either rob them, kill them or imprison them. There’s an evil dictator, replete with an army of suicidally devoted followers, who exploits what resources remain and enslaves the masses; enter also various other desert dwelling factions with equally Machiavellian aspirations. All of which is old hat to anyone who’s seen Beyond Thunderdome. And, even if you haven’t then there’s never really enough time to stop to think or question what’s going on anyway before another vehicle blows up or someone’s face gets ripped off.

The action is innovative and incredibly entertaining, despite the violence and high body count, managing to make a spectacle movie energetic and even genuinely kinetic; a far cry from some of the more sedentary formulaic blockbuster franchises abounding our silver screens since the renaissance of superhero movies engulfed the box office at the turn of the millennium.

Here Tom Hardy‘s eponymous hero is a narrow blend of homage to Mel Gibson‘s original ’80s portrayal and, well, some Tom Hardy-isms. He’s a beguiling presence, in that he is so powerful on screen but strangely silent, beyond even his limited participation in the script and ‘silent brooding type’ characterisation. There isn’t all that much script for him to participate in anyway, with the majority of the film’s 120 minute duration being rammed full with vehicular warfare and exquisitely choreographed mayhem. This only lends itself to Charlize Theron staking her own considerable one-armed claim to being the lead and stand out performance in this picture.

The relationship between her aptly named Furiosa and Max is one of the few familiar narrative threads to grab onto amidst, what can only be said to be, the most explosive and thrilling car chase sequences in movie history. That relationship runs something like this: girl meets boy, girl nearly kills boy, boy escapes, boy nearly kills girl, then, not too slowly, boy earns girl’s trust and boy and girl become friends and allies. Maybe more than friends. But it’s in this ‘maybe more than’ area that their relationship fails. They are compelling as a duo fighting against evil but never once does any believable chemistry ignite between them. Probably for the best, what with all the gas and nitrous flying around. And make no mistake, this is one seriously petrol-headed movie with all shapes and sizes of oil-guzzling monstrosities careering across the dusty expanse that forms the bleak backdrop to this world.

Nicholas Hoult does nothing but solidify his stature as an ever improving Hollywood A-lister. His Nux is the embodiment of the story’s moral message: to change bad to good through self sacrifice. His journey from devout brain-washed believer to enlightened emancipator means he has a lot to play with here, in perhaps his biggest outing to date, but he handles it all well, getting the tone of grotesque pantomime and serious action blockbuster commendably correct. You would be forgiven for feeling that his character, along with all the others, and the plot as a whole, seems rushed and incomplete but let’s just get back to what this film actually is: an action movie. And a very stylised and cinematic one at that.

The combination of computer generated imagery and real life stunt work is nothing short of stunning and almost perfectly balanced; the CGI enhancing what’s actually happening instead of distracting or detracting from it by being overly ambitious or complex. The special effects are so special because when you really have twenty trucks screaming across the desert trying to destroy one another, then it just looks awesome. Well, it does in the hands of director George Miller anyway.

Miller wrote and directed all of the original Mad Max films and has done something not many filmmakers get to do: re-imagined his own crazy vision from the last millennium, with all the aids and improvements technology can offer him in this one. He never gives a quiet moment to catch your breath and soak in the story. But that is surely the point. A point beautifully and fantastically realised cinematically by Miller, who is still a pioneering visionary albeit very much within his own genre.

The portrayal of women is somewhat questionable, with Rosie Huntington-Whiteley leading a harem of beautiful and scantily clad young girls, adorned in white and revered for their beauty and purity. But then you have the amputee-shaved-head Theron, who goes a long way to resetting that imbalance of gender stereotyped roles. It’s good to see a strong badass female lead; good in fact to see so many women on screen, there’s even a wonderfully deadly biker gang of grandmas!

Mad Max: Fury Road is compact, relentless and uncompromising. Its flaws are ultimately its strengths: it knows exactly what it is and just does a really good job of being exactly that. Visually stunning and whole-heartedly entertaining, Max may well be mad but he’s a hell of a lot of fun with it.

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Still – a review

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I’m feeling a bit exposed…

Harrowing, bleak and ultimately tragic, Still makes for very hard viewing. That’s not to say it’s without its merits.

Aiden Gillen gives a strong central performance which draws you into this dark story of grief, revenge and loss. He makes for an interesting character study. Not quite a man with nothing to lose but certainly one behaving that way, he dances a fine line between irresponsible drunk and tragic hero. He commands a strange and beguiling charm; the smelly misbehaving dog that you can’t help but still love despite its continuing habit of urinating on the carpet.

The visual realisation is engaging and commendable, anchored by believable performances from all supporting cast members (Amanda Mealing, Jonathan Slinger and notably a surprising and shockingly moving turn from Elodie Yung), but it never manages to resonate enough beyond that to escape the questions raised by such depressing subject matter: did this film need to be made? did I need to watch it? what was it’s purpose?

It certainly leaves an unpleasant taste in the mouth, as it’s basically a story of human evil: what can happen when we’re the worst of ourselves. However, as a delve into the dark side of what we’re all capable of in the name of love/loss/grief/anger/hate, then there is something to take away from Still. Even if it’s just that people aren’t very nice.

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