Ricki and the Flash

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Like her previous screenplay for Jason Reitman’s Young Adult (2011), Diablo Cody’s Ricki and the Flash (2015) showcases a brilliant lead role for a damaged woman struggling to come to terms with the failings of her past. Charlize Theron was simply staggering as Mavis Gary in Young Adult as a writer of a waning teen fiction series returning to her home town to rekindle an old flame. Fraught with dangerous interactions with ghosts from her past, much of Mavis’s optimism is delusional in nature, leading to a troubling, melancholic flameout as her grimly-preserved memories are derailed by a brutal reality.

In this new film directed by the great Jonathan Demme, Ricki Rendazzo (Meryl Streep) is an aging rock singer, struggling to make ends meet as, between shifts as a check-out chick, she belts out cover tunes with her band The Flash before a paltry few locals at a Tarzana, California bar, including guitarist and love interest Greg (Rick Springfield). When ex-husband Pete (Kevin Kline) calls with a plea for assistance to deal with their daughter Julie (Streep’s real-life daughter Mamie Gummer) whose marriage break-up has left her suicidal, Ricki jumps on a plane to Indiana with little idea as to what constructive use she be. Of course it doesn’t all go swimmingly; Ricki’s mere presence leads to her children prodding at old wounds opened by abandonment issues. An awkward dinner scene brilliantly flushes these into the open as the family – surrounded by increasingly curious and outraged onlookers – struggles to maintain civility amidst the elevating hostilities.

Cody’s screenplay is wonderful, able to maintain a remarkable consistency in her characterisations. I especially admire how she allows moments of wry black humour to truthfully highlight and reflect human shortcomings whilst never really abandoning naturalism. Ricki’s failings are glaring; she’s clearly been a less than model parent to these children. But Cody never allows anyone’s shortcomings or bad choices to become points of derision; instead she points her characters optimistically towards some form of reconciliation. Demme, who makes too few fictional films these days, is no stranger to music-related material, having worked over the course of many years with Neil Young especially as well as Bruce Springsteen and Talking Heads, and he adeptly handles the band’s energetic and passionate live performances.

The music itself is wonderful, with Streep belting out some standard rock classics with conviction if not quite musical perfection. It’s the film’s warts-and-all truthfulness of the characters, combined with a startling, unexpected tenderness that really brings these sequences and others alive. This lovable rag-tag crew of veterans may never play packed auditoriums but there’s a raw, heart-and-soul vibe that almost elicits a tear in the way a wholly believable sense of camaraderie between them on stage is evoked. It’s easy to take Streep’s mercurial abilities for granted. She’s so damn good so much of the time that we tend to approach her films with automatically raised expectations. But even this extraordinary actress, in once again expanding her repertoire, proves that she can still surprise you, inhabiting a new character in a moving, surprisingly fresh way. She’s a marvel here, and with Cody’s astute and funny screenplay having us invested in all of her characters’ fates, Ricki and the Flash is an affecting gem of a film.

Mad Max: Fury Road

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George Miller’s long awaited regeneration of his first, most memorable creation, Mad Max, exceeds all expectations. This blissfully deranged, post-apocalyptic fever dream, fuelled by its grotesque, outlandish imagery, uncompromising weirdness and the sledgehammer-effective accompaniment of Tom Holkenborg’s score, almost allows you to imagine the birth of a new form of action film. The kinetic, adrenaline-pumping set-pieces – which make up most of the film – are shot with a freshness of perspective that seems almost impossible to achieve in today’s made-by-committee, for-the-masses, movie-as-fast-food-consumption climate.

When the pestilent, warlord ruler of the Citadel, Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne), sends his Imperator, Furiosa (Charlize Theron) on a mission to obtain gas, she decides to rebel, settling on an alternate plan that sees her fleeing with Joe’s beautiful array of ‘breeders’ in the hopes of transporting them across the desert to her original home, the Green Place. With the adoption of a fleeing Max Rockatansky (Tom Hardy), earlier snared by Joe’s minions and used as a human bloodbank for Lux (Nicolas Hoult) – who also becomes an ally – she sets out against formidable odds and wave after wave of relentless pursuers.

The combat in Fury Road is brutal, exhilarating and gut-wrenching. Once the screws are turned – and Miller wastes very little time in setting his charges in motion – there’s barely a moment to breathe. The scope of the chases and the ensuing battles, across endless sandblasted terrain, is awe-inspiring and though the actors necessarily play second fiddle to the stuntwork, there are no weak links. The hard-nosed, taciturn stoicism of Hardy works a treat for Max, even if, peculiarly, he ends up closer to a sidekick of sorts in his own film. Theron’s imposing physicality and equally believable masculine qualities are channelled to great effect, meaning there are no credibility issues in her sharing the action duties with Max and the others. Keays-Byrne and Hoult are given great small moments in which to shine, whilst John Howard, Angus Sampson and numerous others all make tiny but telling contributions to Miller’s carnivalesque gathering of freakshow attractions.

Miller, now 70, has been inspired by the scale of his imagination and like too few he’s simply had the audacity to run with it – to utterly trust his vision and insist it hold true to the end. The result is something remarkable, and bearing not a whiff of studio interference that might have seen the director coerced into reining in the excesses of his demented fictional world. The story may not be the film’s strongest suit, and indeed, chunks of dialogue become incomprehensibly camouflaged beneath the relentless sonic assault of music and rampaging engine sound effects. But the basic narrative arc is clear enough and for once these matters fade into insignificance against the backdrop of a spectacle so remarkably assured, transportive and mind-blowingly entertaining. Mad Max: Fury Road (2015), with all its swooping John Seale aerial perspectives, militant nihilism, cavalcade of diseased, warped mutations and ecological sub-themes earns the right to be labelled something close to an instant action classic; at the very least it’s a new watermark against which future genre directors can grade themselves.