Mad Max: Fury Road

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I’m rolling up to the Mad Max party pretty late, I admit. I’ve had a lot on my plate recently, so it was certainly gratifying to sit down to a screening of Fury Road and enjoy the mind-numbing catharsis for a while, and if there was ever one word to perfectly describe this fourth installment of the franchise, “cathartic” would certainly be it.

Written, directed and produced by the famed Dr. George Miller (he actually does have a medical degree), Fury Road is undeniably biggest, most brash and in-your-face film of the year so far. The sheer density and scale of the world that Miller has managed to create is remarkable in itself, but becomes even more so when the film proceeds to deliver some of the most deliriously fun-to-watch action sequences that I remember seeing, full stop. Critics have described the direction, especially in regards to Miller’s action sequences, and practically balletic and, indeed, the marvelously fast-paced and beautifully impactful action all takes place at break-neck speeds as the combatants hurtle across the dessert at mach 10.

And can I just take a moment to say how damn gratifying it is to see an action film without a color palate consisting of mainly shit brown and dishwater grey? The rich, vibrant primaries offset with the oil blacks and stark whites are really a joy to see from a visual standpoint. Even more importantly, Miller internalizes the concept of “show, don’t tell,” and allows the rich and detailed mythos of the film to be communicated visually, rather than stop the action to shove exposition down the audience’s throats like Tomorrowland or Jupiter Ascending, to use recent examples. The fact that things aren’t out-and-out explained to us makes them all the more intriguing. From characters and costumes to settings and action-setpieces, everything in Fury Road’s universe is lovingly designed and detailed, yet it all makes sense within the context of the world. Nothing seems out of place, and everything is there that needs to be there.

Speaking of, I’m pleased to report that Miller brings back all of that delightful homoeroticism that characterized the series after the first Mad Max. You know: all these characters running around either S&M gear or mostly naked, a sort of fetishistic reverence for the leadership, and in this one, Nicholas Hoult and Tom Hardy spend the first forty-five minutes attached to one another with a chain and a hypodermic full of blood. Tell me that’s not somehow symbolic!

Regular readers will know that it almost killed me to say so many nice things about a movie, so now let’s move on to the shitty parts before I start hemorrhaging internally.

Some cretinous pleb on tumblr claimed that Fury Road was the pinnacle of cinematic storytelling, and I had a good old pretentious chuckle over that. The story deserves close examination because, as is the case with a lot of bombastic action films, the narrative is basically just an excuse to string together some barely connected action sequences that will (hopefully) distract the audience from how insipid the plot actually is. And that’s certainly the case with Fury Road, for what it’s worth. The story can basically be summarized thus: the good guys steal the bad guys’ mcguffin(s), and the bad guys are willing to expend virtually unlimited recourses to get them back. So far, so standard.

From there, it really is just your typical, loosely-connected string of setpieces serving as little more than an excuse to show off the high-octane action, most of which takes place in featureless desert, occasionally swapped out for a slightly different bit of featureless desert, but at night this time.

As is usually the case with these films, Max himself is by far the least interesting thing in it. Then again, the beauty of the Mad Max franchise has always been more about the insane world and less about Max’s more-or-less generic character. This does lead me to question, however, whether Max’s presence is strictly relevant to the plot. Realistically, you could take Max out all together and you’d be left with pretty much the same film. I assume the intention was to retain brand recognition, but if that’s the case, it’s a pretty cynical approach on Miller’s part.

On that note, I was actually kind of disappointed at how archetypical and one-dimensional Miller’s characters tuned out to be. We have Max, of course: the gruff, stoic action hero who thinks a sure-fire way of acting cool is to show as little emotion as possible. Then we have Charlize Theron’s Furiosa, who frequently reminds us that she’s seeking “redemption,” though never actually mentions what she wants to be redeemed for. We’re left with a weird scenario in which Furiosa is willing to risk life and limb to achieve her goal, but we don’t actually get a glimpse of her motivation for doing so. Sure, she want’s to be redeemed, but practically speaking, that’s little more than providing a perfunctory and slapdash justification for why the conflict exists at all. The whole story revolves around Furiosa and her decisions, but it’s a shame that she comes across as little more than the stereotypical supercilious bad-ass action chick.

To my mind, the character with the most potential for development was Nicholas Hoult’s Nux, a rather bumbling and inept War Boy, bred specifically to be a member of the main baddie’s personal army. Hoult gives quite an admirable performance, but his character, too, is marred by rushed development and an unfulfilling arc. Nux is originally a zealot, a War Boy obsessed and devoted to his leader, Immortan Joe. At the drop of a hat, however, and a casualness with which one might change a boring TV channel, Nux switches sides and joins Max and Furiosa on their quest for not-particularly-justified redemption. My point is that Nux’s realignment carries no emotional weight because it seems as though the only reason he made the choice that he did was because the plot demanded it, and not, as we might expect, because he felt remorseful or conflicted about his actions.

But there’s me going on and on about the minor flaws in what is otherwise an extremely well-made film. Sure, the characters are kind of flat, and their motivations and arcs don’t make a lot of sense, but the simple fact is that Mad Max: Fury Road is one of the most fun and all-around entertaining movies that I’ve seen in a really long time. In many ways, it serves as the perfect counterpoint to, say, Age of Ultron’s cold, superficial and ultimately boring action and story. Amazing, isn’t it? You put a bit of heart and passion into your film and, lo and behold people like it, and rant for way too long about it on a tin-pot movie blog that no one will ever read.

Rating: 4 out of 5

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The Drop

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This week in cinemas creates an interesting “point-counterpoint” type of situation between A Walk Among the Tombstones starring Liam Neeson, and The Drop, featuring Tom Hardy; these two films, both ostensibly crime dramas and starring well known actors, offset one another in narrative quality. As we’ll explore, the places where Tombstones falls flat are the same places in which The Drop succeeds—and then some.

The film is directed by Michaël R. Roskam, whose only other feature film was the Belgian drama Bullhead (2011) and is written by novelist Dennis Lehane. As the man behind the novelizations of Gone, Baby, Gone and Shutter Island (adapted by Scorsese in 2010), Lehane’s screenplay was inspired by one of his short stories entitled “Animal Rescue.” It’s abundantly clear that Roskam and Lehane make a great team, as Roskam’s careful, deliberate style of filmmaking lends gravity to and emphasizes Lehane’s beautifully paced, character-driven story.

Speaking of characters, the film’s central protagonist, Bob Saginowski, was masterfully brought to life by Tom Hardy, whose understated yet quietly intense performance reminded me, in the best of ways, of Ryan Gosling’s portrayal of the unnamed protagonist in Drive (2011). Continuing this positive trend, the chemistry between Hardy’s Bob and love interest Nadia, played by Noomi Rapace, felt amazingly natural and compelling; more importantly, however, the relationship between the two was vital in a narrative sense (as opposed to being strong-armed in, which we tend to see a lot of in Hollywood) as it provided context for the actions of the antagonist, expertly played by Matthias Schoenaerts, making him appear all the more dangerous and unpredictable. The Drop also features the final performance of the late James Gandolfini, who plays Cousin Marv, an ex loan shark with strong ties to the local organized crime syndicate. As expected, Gandolfini proves to be a perfect fit for the role, and gives a performance that I like to think he would be proud of.

No stranger to the crime drama genre, Dennis Lehane shows considerable restraint by omitting much physical violence—that is, until the final, bloody climax. Instead, the story progresses via the implication of violence and veiled threats as the protagonist is beset on all sides by forces which threaten to decimate the quiet, fragile life that he has created for himself. Throughout the film, the audience discovers that Bob, trapped in the center of an unstable and violent world, might be infinitely more complex than we might have first imagined.

One of the only real criticisms I can level at the film is that there’s an intrigue established early on concerning an ongoing investigation by a Detective Torres (John Ortiz). Presumably, the intent was to create a little more pressure to the event’s of the film and to add a sort of ticking-clock element to the proceedings. While it works well at the beginning and helps to establish the characters and events to a certain extent, it doesn’t really end up going anywhere by the end. I do think it’s a nice touch though, because the police investigation, which is external to the immediate events of the film, lends a bit of perspective and gives the impression that there’s a larger world outside of Cousin Marv’s bar and its denizens.

The Drop, in my opinion is one of the best crime dramas around and easily one of the best films of the year so far. Granted, it’s only just now the beginning of October, but before all the Oscar-bait starts hitting the screen, Roskam’s sophomore effort is, without a doubt, a very fun time at the movies.

Rating: 4 out of 5

The Dark Knight Rises: Batman as the Absurd Hero…Almost

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With the runaway success of Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises, millions of people were unwittingly exposed to a long standing and particularly relevant philosophical principal; that of the absurd hero. Statistically speaking, if you’ve probably seen The Dark Knight Rises about three to four times at this point. I’m going to go ahead and assume, then, that what little plot spoiling there is to be done will be, for the most part, negligible.

At one point during the film, Bane confronts the physically broken Bruce Wayne in the depths of a prison before he initiates his master plan to destroy Gotham City from the inside. As ALL great villains inevitably do, Bane begins to monologue about how he intends to punish Wayne, as well as the people of Gotham, by leading them to believe that they still have a chance of survival. In other words, allowing them to retain the hope of salvation and watch as their hope is crushed and replaced with despair. This is indeed no new principal, and in fact goes back to the mythic lore of ancient Greece.

Gather ‘round, my children, and listen well to the sorry tale of Old Sisyphus, whom the Gods condemned to a fate worse than death!

Through a singular combination of circumstances which I will here omit for the sake of brevity, Sisyphus, the wisest of mortal men, knew that he was close to death and wanted to give his wife a test of love. He told her to throw his unburied corpse into the public square for all to see. As the story goes, his wife did as she was told, and Sisyphus awoke in the underworld and was angered that his wife cared more about following his orders than about his dignity. Curiously, Sisyphus obtained permission from Pluto, lord of the underworld, to travel back to Earth in order to chastise his wife. When Pluto reached Earth, however, his love of the sparkling sea and the clear sky and the shining sun was reawakened within him. Sisyphus stayed on Earth for many years, truly enjoying the beauty that life had to offer, until his audacity angered the Gods and they threw him back into the depths of the underworld, where his eternal punishment awaited him.

In the underworld, Sisyphus was condemned to roll a boulder up a mountain and upon reaching the precipice, it would roll back down to the bottom. The whole operation was to be repeated for all eternity with no hope of escape.

When we look at Sisyphus’s fate, we no doubt see a tragedy, but it is only a tragedy if Sisyphus believes that he can escape.

Sisyphus’s walk back down the mountain to where his rock lay waiting for him was of particular interest to a philosopher named Albert Camus. He believed that when Sisyphus began to walk back down the mountain again, Sisyphus endured his fate without yielding to it. In other words ABIDED it. Does this sound familiar to anyone?

Let us now return to Bruce Wayne, broken and scared at the bottom of a pit. Bane was right as he stood over the fallen warrior in that hopeless place; he knew that to give the people of Gotham hope of survival while snatching it away at the last moment like a mirage oasis to a lost man in the desert, would be the perfect, soul-crushing finale to Gotham’s demise. Not only was Bane after Gotham’s physical destruction, he also sought the destruction of its collective heart, mind, and soul.

Alas, this is where my carefully constructed comparison breaks down. Bruce Wayne does not give up hope of escape and eventually rebuilds his body as well as his broken psyche. And why is he able to achieve this incredible feat? Because he’s fuckmothering BATMAN, ok? Shut up.

Sorry. Anyway, the point I’m trying to make is that hope is, and forever will be, a powerful and dangerous force. Will you embrace your hopeless, absurd fate and abide it, like Sisyphus? Or will you retain your hope until the bitter end, like the people of Gotham?

Food for thought! 🙂

P.S. I’m in need of some more movies to analyze! Does anyone have any titles that they’d like to see me do? Leave a comment!

The Dark Knight Rises Review

The superhero flick has become a bit of a redundant genre in the past ten years. Since the turn of the century, countless iterations of caped crusader films have hit Hollywood, a great number of which were forgettable CGI-based action thrillers.

That is, until director Christopher Nolan (InceptionMemento) got his hands on the Batman franchise. Batman Begins (2005) and The Dark Knight (2008) helped redefine the superhero thriller with highly cerebral themes and a clear layer of subtext. Not to mention, Heath Ledger’s Academy Award winning turn as the Joker in the saga’s second installment has been hailed as one of the best supporting performances in film history. The Dark Knight Rises concludes the trilogy in tremendous form, living up to the prequels with a phenomenal cast, excellent writing, and great direction.

The film seems to be more of an ending to the trilogy rather than a stand alone sequel like Dark Knight. The addition of Catwoman (Anne Hathaway) brings a fresh element to the series. Rather than focusing on Batman’s “lone wolf” persona, Nolan chooses to make him a part of a much greater effort against the film’s major antagonist, Bane (Tom Hardy). The script, while not the masterpiece that the second film was, is very strong. Catwoman’s character regrettably feels underdeveloped at times, and I found myself occasionally wondering whether she was there only to add variety or whether her character was actually essential to the development of anyone else. The major conflict of the film is pretty standard, featuring a masked maniac intent on destroying Gotham city, and the many cameo appearances by characters from previous films makes for a complex and intelligent plotline. Nolan’s directorial genius shines through, with well choreographed action sequences and cinematography on par with the first two films.

Christian Bale has always seemed like a strange choice for Batman, but he has used his intensive Method style to bring the character of Bruce Wayne full circle. Anne Hathaway brings Catwoman to life more than anyone who has played her previously. The supporting cast features Joseph Gordon Levitt in a little advertised but highly prominent role as a young police detective, and brings back Morgan Freeman and Michael Caine to serve as Bruce Wayne’s faithful associates. Tom Hardy’s Bane is both intimidating and vindictive.

The trilogy’s conclusion ties up loose ends nicely. Most characters reach an emotional climax (though, again, Catwoman’s role as far as plot development is concerned seems questionable.) Audiences will enjoy the nod to the comic books, and the addition of some key batman figures adds depth and variety. Nolan has done it again: a dark Batman thriller that always has substance below the surface.

Rating: 4 out of 5