Mad Max: Fury Road

We are not things

Mad Max Fury Road - Charlize Theron As Imperator Furiosa WallpaperI am thankful that a forty year-old disabled woman can be the main character of an action movie.  I am thankful that George Miller can not only combat the macho, faux-masculine baloney that constitutes so many action movies these days, but that he can also still create superior action scenes whilst making this point.  I am thankful that a group of warrior women of all ages can make up the ragtag band of revolutionaries that sit at the core of any proper dystopia.  I am thankful that the women who play the prisoners can be three-dimensional people with dreams, personalities, badass names, and agency, not just helpless pregnant damsels.  I am thankful that more than one woman can make it out of an action film alive, and that “Vasquez” doesn’t always die.  I am thankful that a woman and a man can share top billing in a brutal, action-packed setpiece without ever once kissing each other or musing about running away as a couple.  I am thankful that the creator of one of the most lucrative and culty “man movie” franchises of all time would consult the writer of The Vagina Monologues to look over his new script.  I am thankful for that scene wherein Max (Tom Hardy) screws up two difficult shots and needs Furiosa (Charlize Theron) to snipe a difficult target.  I am thankful for the name “Max Rockatansky” and the opening credits that feature only two names.  I am thankful that Miller and Nicholas Hoult can turn a sociopathic mook into a sympathetic character in under an hour.  I am thankful that Hugh Keays-Byrne still acts, and that the same actor can play different characters in films by the same director, a la Leone’s spaghetti westerns and grindhouse fare of every stripe.  I am thankful that the MPAA no longer takes issue with the fact that a female character “fights back.”  I am thankful that a movie like this did not deafen me; in fact, I wanted to listen.

Furiosa.  Forever.

Mad Max: Fury Road (2015); written by George Miller, Brendan McCarthy, and Nico Lathouris; directed by George Miller; starring Charlize Theron, Tom Hardy, Nicholas Hoult.   

Locke

This isn’t your home any more

lockeThe parameters of the 80-minute car ride that is Locke pretty much set themselves: once we get in the car, we cannot get out.  Once we are allowed out of the car, the movie ends.  Sort of like – y’know – a long-ass car ride.

The film, which centers on one character and relies entirely upon an excruciatingly-crafted plot, follows Ivan Locke (Tom Hardy doing an upper-class Welsh accent) as he drives from Birmingham to London in order to be with a certain woman while she gives birth.  Simple enough circumstances, but the conflicts pile up as we, the audience, watch Ivan placate countless people and keep the utter destruction of his life at bay via Bluetooth.  The woman giving birth, Bethan (Olivia Colman) is not Ivan’s wife.  He had a one-night stand with her seven months ago while away from his family, who know nothing about it (yet).  Moreover, he’s supposed to be rushing home from work to watch an important football (soccer) match with his wife, Katrina (Ruth Wilson) and kids.  What’s arguably worse: Ivan is a highly revered construction foreman, and is expected to oversee one of the most monumental concrete pours in the history of England the following morning – an event he will not be present for if he’s in London.

For many of us, this doesn’t sound too bad.  A lie here or there and the whole thing blows over.  But of course, Ivan, for reasons that are slowly peeled away during the few-and-far-between scenes when he’s truly alone, has decided to be completely honest with absolutely everyone tonight.  His boss, Gareth (Ben Daniels) – whose name is saved in Ivan’s Bluetooth address book as “Bastard” (really the only atom of humor in the entire film, and a damn refreshing running gag) – throws the fit you’d expect when Ivan gives him the news that he will not be coming in for the most important workday in his career.  Gareth knows that when he lets the true heads of the company (inexplicably located in Chicago) know this, Ivan will be fired, and he makes no secret about it to Ivan, even asking why Ivan didn’t lie and say he was sick, which would have been a valid excuse.  Things go as Gareth promises, and a call a few minutes later reveals that Ivan no longer has a job to return to, even though Gareth mentioned to Chicago that Ivan has served the company loyally for twelve years.  “Eleven years,” Ivan corrects him.  The honesty is painful.

But the bit of honesty that makes us cringe most of all is Ivan’s call to Katrina, explaining why exactly he will not be home tonight.  Katrina spends most of her in-between time considering whether to kick Ivan out of the house for his infidelity (and the fact that he kept this a secret for seven months), though of course we never see her, or anyone else but Ivan.  Bethan has her own problems in the hospital, at which you can guess, and about which Ivan spends as much time worrying as he does about the pour or his family.

Ivan’s journey over the spiraling English highways isn’t just a descent from one piece of terrible news to another, however.  Ivan still has a goal: he will successfully prepare the concrete pour over the phone despite the fact that he is no longer in charge of it.  He refers to the mammoth building that will soon be built as “my building,” and guides his former underling, Irishman Donal (Andrew Scott), whose predicament is somehow amplified when we cannot actually see his face, through the grueling preparations.

Locke is not a story with only one character, but it’s a film wherein only one actor’s face is seen, and the whole thing takes place on a single claustrophobic set.  Tom Hardy must carry the entire movie, and he does.  Whether his character is sympathetic is subjective, and doesn’t quite matter because his three major conflicts are so different, but his decision to play things Lawful Good seems like an attempt on director Steven Knight’s part to nudge the audience in the sympathy direction.  We want all of this to work out for Ivan, both as a film audience and as witnesses to the serious pain of several people, but as both of those things, we’d also feel cheated if everything did work out for him.

There are a couple of characterizations that don’t quite sit well: Katrina’s incredulity befits any stereotypical Wife to a Bearded Movie Hero, whether or not her final decision is understandable, and Donal, the film’s only Irishman, drinks heavily through almost the entire story (and gets more than a little feisty when you hassle him about it).  Missteps like this can’t be overlooked in such a tight film because they’re more glaring than they would be anywhere else.  Here, they remind us that everything and everyone outside of Ivan’s car are pieces that must fit into exact place at exact times, over and over, ad (almost) infinitum.

One-man and one-woman shows are all over the place, and the conventions of film, small-cinema and otherwise, are being reinvented on a yearly basis (check out last year’s Blue is the Warmest Color), so I don’t need to sell you Locke by calling it ambitious.  But it is.  In a world where the CG grows more ludicrous, advertisements for 3D movies won’t go away, and the explosions and giant robots only get bigger, Locke is unabashedly small, a deliberate implosion of all that big noise.

Locke (2014); written and directed by Steven Knight; starring Tom Hardy.

 

Lawless

Year of the Southern

Lawless, based upon Matt Bondurant’s historical novel The Wettest County in the World, is violent to the degree that it makes something like The Expendables look like The Wizard of Oz.  This isn’t due to gratuity, mind you; the various malicious acts in Lawless occur due to some unspoken code of violence upheld by its characters, and while there’s a lot of blood, violent scenes are effective not because of spectacle, but because of what is happening to whom, and the degree to which the event itself frustrates or discomforts the viewer – I’ve always said one of the most most violent scenes in film was Sonny’s death in The Godfather.

The film follows the historical Bondurant brothers, Virginia moonshine bootleggers in Prohibition-era Franklin County.  Forrest (Tom Hardy) is effectively the boss, and is feared for being legendarily invincible.  Jack (Shia LaBeouf) is the youngest, who feels he has something to prove to Forrest, who often treats him like a child.  Howard (Jason Clark) is apelike and unpredictable.  Together, they are a local treasure, and along with the lovable Cricket (Dane Dehaan), they make and jar the best moonshine available, supplying everyone from local yokels to fearsome gangsters, including Floyd Banner (Gary Oldman), who seems at the outset like he might become the villain, but despite his tendency to walk into the street and casually mow down groups of people with a Thompson submachine gun, Banner is actually quite agreeable.

Jessica Chastain, who created the greatest female performances of 2011 (and, to be honest, maybe some of the best film performances ever) in Take Shelter and The Tree of Life, appears as the enigmatic Maggie, who wanders into town and snags a job in the Bondurants’ restaurant in order to escape the Chicago city life.  This role is not the stuff of her characters from last year – in fact, she is given criminally little to do – but her limitless dedication to every one of her characters produces the film’s best dramatic scene when she finally reveals to the mumbling Forrest (at this point her romantic partner) that she’s tired of him going out and sustaining near-fatal injuries every single day.

Mia Wasikowska, who also had one of the most moving performances of last year in Jane Eyre, appears as Bertha, playing opposite LaBeouf’s character, who goes so far as infiltrating a church meeting in order to steal a smile from her.  Her performance is great, but I get the feeling she’s acting around a group of Hollywooders indulging so deeply in their own project that they don’t realize she’s secretly a leading actress, and one of the better ones we have right now.

The trouble reaches new levels when Special Deputy Charley Rakes (Guy Pearce) ventures into Franklin County, ordered by corrupt feds to seize the Bondurants’ operation: first, he offers a deal, but his foppish nature and condescending personality illicit a belligerent response from Forrest, and we soon have a turf war on our hands.  If he can’t have a share of the Bondurants’ profits, he must destroy them, and he succeeds on most levels: razing their still with explosives, brutalizing Jack, murdering innocent parties, harassing (and later unspeakably harming) Maggie, and sending multiple goons to get rid of Forrest while framing Banner for it.  The brothers aren’t duped, however, and before you know it, one of the most intense firefights since The Guard takes place at an otherwise gorgeous covered bridge.

The film features one of Hardy’s best performances in the unbelievably tough and lovably soft-spoken Forrest, and LaBeouf’s character is surprisingly sympathetic, proving he can do things other than yell and fidget in big-budget shlock about giant robots.  Even his accent seems authentic (it should be noted, however, that I’m a Northerner).  My one major regret about this film is that Jessica and Mia, two of the best actresses working today, are relegated to supporting cast and never have a single scene together (at the end, we see them in the same room together, but they never share so much as a glance).  I suppose, at heart, this is a movie about dudes shooting each other, and I understand the concept of focus as well as anyone, but it still seems a waste, as these two could carry a film with no other actors at all, if it came down to it.  Pearce, accustomed to playing irredeemably evil characters, basically plays the Devil here.  “You know, I don’t much like you,” he is told by a local lawman forced to work with him.  “Yeah?” he responds, unshaken.  “Not many do.”  It would have been interesting to see him clash with Oldman’s Banner, but the film doesn’t lend time for it.

Lawless is reaching for an Oscar, but its plot is actually a carbon copy of John Nichols’ novel The Milagro Beanfield War (also adapted into a film featuring Christopher Walken), a story about regionalism and also featuring a showdown between simple country folks and federal law enforcement.  The main difference is that in Nichols’ story, the main character is defending a beanfield instead of a distillery, and the women are tougher and better respected.  Lawless deals with (most of) its own characters well, though, and being one of those derivative-yet-supposedly-true stories this country knows and loves, it may yet bag the glory its American underdogs feel they so duly deserve.

Lawless (2012); written by Nick Cave; based upon the novel by Matt Bondurant; directed by John Hillcoat; starring Tom Hardy, Jessica Chastain, Shia LaBeouf, Guy Pearce, and Mia Wasikowska.

The Dark Knight Rises

Death by exile

Since this may be my last chance, I’d like to examine just a few of the logical missteps in Batman’s modus operandi, many of which were suggested to me by a friend during the car ride to see The Dark Knight Rises: Batman and other masked vigilantes cannot legally arrest anyone.  Without admissible evidence, any villain kidnapped by Batman and left on the stoop of the police department is free to get up and catch a cab home.  Adding the fact that vigilantism is largely illegal, “the Batman” (i.e. a nocturnal maniac in an elaborate costume who beats the tar out of people unprovoked) cannot present himself as a witness without revealing his identity.  The absolute only way Batman would be able to stop crime would be to murder every criminal he came across, curbing his “no killing” rule.  Even if Bruce Wayne were to come forth as witness to a crime or offer open help to the police, he has an endless assemblage of illegal tech in and below his house (including military-grade tanks).  If Christopher Nolan’s Gotham were a real place, rest assured, Batman would be spending plenty more time in his cave than anywhere else.

The final film in the Batman Begins series is an effective ending to the trilogy and the most character-centric film Nolan has done, albeit with more than a few failures.  On the upside, Batman himself appears for maybe ten minutes of total screen time, while his alter ego, Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) deals with some personal trials after an eight year absence from crime-fighting.  The film focuses on these trials along with the exploits of Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway), a cat burglar who arranges to steal Wayne’s fingerprints in exchange for the elimination of her criminal record.  The film’s deuteragonist, John Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) climbs the ladder of the Gotham police force and takes on a role very similar to that of Robin, the sidekick of Batman, a non-coincidence that provides some good payoff in one of the film’s final scenes.  The other major players are Bane (Tom Hardy), a terrorist with a cult-like following bent on purifying Gotham through its destruction, and Miranda Tate (Marion Cotillard), a determined businesswoman with lots of money and a nebulous agenda.

I’ve discussed Christopher Nolan’s writing problems in the past (see Inception), and although The Dark Knight Rises possesses a more emotional foothold than its predecessors, plenty of fundamental issues are still present, namely when it comes to female characters.  Women get a better deal here (which isn’t saying much, considering Maggie Gyllenhaal’s fate in The Dark Knight): Hathaway’s character gets plenty to do in the way of action, and more importantly, has some personal motivation for getting involved in Gotham’s criminal underbelly.  Cotillard’s character is an important business mogul with serious ideas for a billion-dollar company, but once the action starts, she becomes a damsel in distress, and later, when her true identity is revealed, she satisfies that Generation Nolan film convention in which women with goals must use sex to achieve them and/or be deceptive and snakelike (see also George Clooney’s The Ides of March).  Both women harbor romantic feelings for Wayne, and like Nolan’s two female characters in Inception, these two serve as disparate romance options for the male lead.  They revolve around the guy, and if he didn’t need them, they wouldn’t exist.  Additionally, while Hathaway tries to play against type and be a self-motivated character, these contrived feelings for Batman (not to mention the sexy catsuit and high heels she’s required to prance around in) subvert what is otherwise a valiant effort.  Selina gets a sidekick, Holly Robinson (Juno Temple), commonly known as one of the first openly gay characters in comic books, but Temple is criminally underused while time is wasted on individual male cops and criminals who have no real bearing on the story’s events, including Jonathan Crane (Cillian Murphy, who has appeared in all three films), in a mock courtroom side-story that is never actually resolved.

There are also some interesting “buzz word” moments that I think are worth examining.  Bane’s takeover of Gotham is described by Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman) as an “occupation,” and Bane proceeds to dismantle the power structures of the city (which includes driving the entire police force into hiding) while claiming that he’s placing the power in the hands of the people; the word people is spoken very deliberately, like a taunt.  The city’s single court room is now run by a mob of cretins, and pyramids of books and papers are scattered and piled everywhere.  Every defendant is killed in a barbaric, Hun-like manner, regardless of guilt.  It seems that when the “people” obtain power and there are no billionaires or police to save us from ourselves, the system falls apart and the doors to the Dark Ages are reopened.  Nolan has already responded to this commentary, claiming that the film is “obviously not” a criticism of the Occupy Wall Street movement, but if it was obvious, viewers would not be making these claims based upon evidence gathered from the film.  You cannot create a story with the intent of having it interpreted; no matter what “side” you’re on, Nolan’s film glorifies the police and reinforces the necessity of the wealthy while trodding on free will and treating ordinary people like commoners.  Wayne’s ascent from a gargantuan (and apparently unsupervised) prison tower among the burbling chants of other prisoners (who all happen to be trained baritones) evokes a sort of religious vibe, satisfying the Rises part of the title while making one wonder what Batman himself thinks of the people – he’s a wealthy man who unconditionally aids the police, but he’s adamant about ensuring that Gotham’s savior “could be anyone.”

Among the leaps in logic is Bane’s (and his boss’s) ultimate plan: destroy Gotham as per the wishes of Ra’s al Ghul (Liam Neeson), who was defeated in the first film.  Considering how petty their goals are (right up there with Hans Gruber), why are Bane’s thugs so devoted and ready to die for the cause?  The film’s opening brings on this question when a henchman happily goes down with a doomed aircraft simply because Bane asks him to (this scene also features Aiden Gillen as a cocky CIA agent with a pompadour haircut, illustrating the underuse of great TV actors in films).  How do the thugs plant bombs of incredible power beneath massive suspension bridges without anyone (particularly boaters) noticing?  What’s the point of isolating Gotham into a medieval city-state if you’re going to blow it up anyway?  How many movies are going to make use of the trigger-button MacGuffin before filmmakers realize it no longer provides any real tension or drama?

The film effectively book-ends the Batman saga despite the numerous hair-pulling moments, and the statuses of the film’s main characters (not to mention the Batcave) make for a surprisingly pleasing conclusion (with no cliffhangers or silly post-credits scenes).  For full enjoyment, however, please blacken your third eye.

The Dark Knight Rises (2012); written by Christopher Nolan and Jonathan Nolan; directed by Christopher Nolan; starring Christian Bale, Anne Hathaway, and Tom Hardy.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

No, it’s not Men in Black III

As the Oscars continue to push me toward my inevitable aneurysm, great films continue to release on the tail end of awards season.  2012 doesn’t (so far) look like it will be quite the year for film as 2011 was, but there are glimmers of hope here and there.  I’m currently playing tag with the final films of 2011, many of which are still available to see.

Tomas Alfredson’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is a quiet spy film in the tradition of Three Days of the Condor and The Good Shepherd.  Based upon a complex spy novel by John le Carré and perhaps inspired by the seven-part TV series from many years ago, the film features a prize collection of male actors, including Oscar-nominated Gary Oldman, Benedict Cumberbatch, Mark Strong, John Hurt, Toby Jones, Stephen Graham, Colin Firth, Simon McBurney, Tom Hardy, and Ciarán Hinds.  The story follows a few characters, centering around George Smiley (Oldman), whom, after being forced into retirement from the Circus (the British secret service), is tasked with uncovering the identity of a mole.  From the beginning, we know that the mole is sitting at the table, but the filmmakers don’t so much invite us to decode the mystery for ourselves as they do urge us to tag along with Smiley.

What follows is essentially a two-hour series of interviews, through which Smiley and his sidekick, Peter Guillam (Cumberbatch) ingeniously smoke the mole out.  Contrary to the usual, I won’t go into detail about the plot, as its movement doesn’t lend itself well to this type of piece.  However, the film contains inspired performances, convincingly suspenseful situations (at the expense of obligatory gunfights, which the less experienced spy-film-viewer may expect here), and some great use of image patterning (keep track of every shot of dripping liquid, if you can).

To the film’s detriment, perhaps, is the uniformly consistent direction by Alfredson.  The cinematography is always solid, but rarely surprising.  In addition, the underuse of music throughout and explosive overuse of “La Mer” at the end is a bit jarring.  Only one female character shows up in the film (Irina, played by Svetlana Khodchenkova), and once Ricki Tarr (Hardy) gets involved with her, there’s not much hope that she’ll last until the denouement.  Perhaps most striking is the lack of characterization for Smiley.  Rather than receiving character-deepening scenes (apart from one, during which he relates a story about meeting Karla, an enemy of Britain), Smiley acts as the linchpin for the movie’s forward action, and the story’s ancillary characters orbit him without ever allowing us to be too curious about him.  We’re not even allowed to see the face of his estranged wife, Ann, who cheats on him with Haydon (Firth) in one of the film’s important subplots.  The film’s other major draw is Mark Strong, who plays Jim Prideaux, a British spy-turned-schoolteacher who has a good relationship with children and a hell of an aim with a .22.  It’s a nice change from his usual villain roles.

Spy movies like this only come out every so often, and it’s just as well, since their quiet nature turns the average American filmgoer’s brain into pudding.  It’s refreshing, however, when a film of this type not only turns out well, but gets a bit of recognition.  Oldman’s Best Actor is coming.  Not this year nor for this film, but soon.

 Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011); written by Bridget O’Connor (adapted from John le Carré’s novel); directed by Tomas Alfredson; starring Gary Oldman, Colin Firth, Benedict Cumberbatch, and Mark Strong.

Inception

There’s still no spoon

I’m starting to realize something: when someone says a film was “hard to follow,” chances are that person does not read.  In our current world, rarely does a film come along in which you actually have to remember anything that happened in the previous scene.  There’s a lot of loud noise, flashing lights, quick cuts, unconvincing CG, violent pulses that pass for music, and distracting 3D nonsense.  This brings me to Inception, Christopher Nolan’s newest effort.  I’ve read/heard from a variety of sources that the film was “confusing” or “hard to follow.”  I’ve also heard the word “deep” used to describe it, though “deep” has such variation in meaning that it’s hard for me to tell whether someone thinks Inception was thoughtfully written or whether they’re going to base an entire religion on it.

Have these people ever read a novel?  I’m guessing not.  Inception is nearly three hours, and everything in the story is relatively spelled out for the audience.  Of the five or six main characters, only Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his past are truly highlighted, while everyone else has a specific role to play in relation to the plot action and Cobb himself (not so much their own lives and demons and what have you), therefore almost zero sideplots exist.  On one hand, you’ve got the mission: plant an idea in the head of a businessman (Cillian Murphy) by entering his dreams; on the other hand you have Cobb’s obsession with his dead wife Mallorie (Marion Cotillard) and how his memory of her affects the dreams he enters.  If that’s hard to follow, I can help you no further.  In fact, Nolan holds our hand through the entire film by having characters take turns saying things like “Wait, so whose subconscious are we in now?”

The film features a diverse ensemble cast including leading lady Ellen Page (who is really starting to make a name for herself now, and one can see why) as Ariadne, an architectural prodigy who is placed in charge of manipulating the scenery in the dream world; Tom Hardy as Eames, a “Forger,” a witty thief who impersonates others in dreams; a deep-voiced Joseph Gordon-Levitt (in one of his most mature roles to date) as Arthur, the team’s point man and DiCaprio’s fall guy; Dileep Rao as Yusuf, a creator of heavy sedatives and the team’s getaway driver; Ken Watanabe as Saito, a Japanese businessman with an intriguing proposition for Cobb; and even Tom Berenger in a nice supporting role as Browning, Cillian Murphy’s sidekick.  The immortal Michael Caine appears in a cameo role as Cobb’s mentor and Ariadne’s college professor.  Every performance is impeccably handled and every character is necessary to complete the plot puzzle.

One of the most impressive features of this film is one that might be easily overlooked once the story and the hype take your senses over: Inception is not an adaptation.  Christopher Nolan wrote and directed this monster from his own mind – as with every film ever, it takes influences and inspiration from elsewhere (i.e. every heist film from The Killing to The Hot Rock), but it’s not directly based upon anything.  It’s something new.

Nolan still has problems writing female characters, in that they continue to be little more than mismatched support beams for the macho male hero.  This film has a million men and two women.  Mallorie is an exotic beauty with a French accent – clearly an intentional retention, as Cillian Murphy stifles his heavy Irish accent throughout the film.  Where Mal came from (France, I assume) and how she became Cobb’s wife is never touched upon.  She ceases to be a person and becomes little more than a dark temptation for Cobb (and Nolan’s decision to make her dead only adds to the convenience of the situation).  Ariadne is said to be a genius, but she never gets to exercise that.  She acts disloyal and disobedient, to which we are supposed to respond with “Ugh; why’d she have to do that?” but she always has Cobb’s best interests in mind.  There is no mention of her personal life or desires.  See further examples of this problem in Nolan’s The Prestige and The Dark Knight.

Inception is a heist film disguised as a psychological thriller.  The ingredients are all there.  One might immediately draw comparisons to The Matrix, but this film is smarter and without all the popcorn sci-fi nonsense (and hopefully without broken, sloppily-done sequels).  This is not a film where you look up a plot summary beforehand and then go see it if you think it looks good (which is why I’m not providing one here).  It’s a film to go out and experience.  Possibly more than once.  Just don’t tell me it’s hard to follow.

Inception (2010); written and directed by Christopher Nolan; starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Ellen Page, Tom Hardy and Joseph Gordon-Levitt.