Mad Max Fury Road

Once there was no bigger SF movie series than Mad Max. The first film is a cheapie that rose from the Australian new wave cinema movement. It has technical and some pacing problems but the charisma of its star Mel Gibson, shines through and two years later, the sequel The Road Warrior, made him a huge movie star. The Road Warrior changed action cinema. It has very little characterization and almost no plot. Over half of it is one long chase scene. Sheer action and stunts replace all other narrative elements and it works. The next one Beyond Thunderdome, suffers from expectations and the intrusion of Hollywood sensibilities. It’s not bad but it lacks the pure adrenaline rush of the second one.
Then came a long hiatus. George Miller the writer and director of the series always seemed to be willing to continue with the story of Max Rockatansky’s wanderings across the wasted landscape of post-apocalyptic Australia. But Gibson was reluctant. He didn’t want this iconic character to define and trap him. He eventually came around but circumstances prevented the movie from going forward and then Gibson imploded his career with a drunken anti-Semitic rant given to police who were taking him in for a DWI.
It was hard to imagine anybody else in the role. Then Tom Hardy arrived on the scene. He has the same menacing physicality that Gibson brings to Max and is, if anything, more intense. There are probably people out there who object to the re-casting but I’m not one of them.
At the beginning of the film Max is being held captive by a warlord named Immortan Joe played by Hugh Keays-Byrne. Joe controls an aquifer under a stone mountain and metes out water in small doses to the thirsty masses who live at the foot of it. He keeps an army of fanatical warriors called war-boys who paint themselves white and believe that they will go to Valhalla if they die in Joe’s service. But Joe is aging and losing his physical strength. He goes to great lengths to hide this from the masses and especially from the war-boys.
It turns out that Max is a universal blood donor; his blood is compatible with anybody’s, so Joe and his war-boys keep him around for transfusions. When Imperator Furiosa played by Charlize Theron, steals Joe’s five wives and makes a run across the badlands, trying to find “the green place,” where she was born and was kidnapped from when she was a child, they strap Max to the front of a pursuit vehicle driven by war-boy Nux played by Nicholas Hoult, and chase her.
Miller has an eye for bizarre images, the vehicles are a mashup of cars, trucks and construction equipment all welded together in improbable ways. He casts people who are missing legs and arms or who have other handicaps and show them scampering across the blasted landscape, trying to scratch out a living. The sets are ingenious Rube Goldberg contraptions made of rusted gears and cobbled together contraptions. And of course the landscapes are a perfect example of beautiful desolation.
The acting is good, especially that of the two leads, Tom Hardy and Charlize Theron. Of course this film isn’t really about acting. The stunts were amazing.
I like the fact that Max is not portrayed as ultra-competent. He makes mistakes and is, in fact, captured in the first scene. He is struggling to survive in the present while burdened with the past just like everybody else.
Something about this film falls flat for me, however. It could be that I was a much younger man in 1982 and responded more to the pace and excitement of The Road Warrior. This kind of film was new then; it’s not now. But I think that it’s something else. The first Mad Max was 88 minutes long. The Road Warrior was 94 minutes. Miller got in, wowed us and then got out. Fury Road weighs in at 120 minutes. It pauses for conversations and weird dream sequences. These don’t seem overlong but they do give the audience time to reflect upon the unlikeliness of the situation. It could be that this series just is not conducive to emotional depth or heavy themes. Maybe there just aren’t that many stories to be told here.
Mad Max Fury Road is a good movie, but I was hoping for a great one like The Road Warrior, and perhaps that was too much to ask.

Avengers: The Age of Ultron

One criticism that I’ve frequently heard leveled at the Marvel Universe films is that they are not self-contained movies; they reference events in other movies and even TV shows and plot points turn on these events. To me this is the point. Kevin Feige, Joss Whedon and now the Russo brothers are creating a mega-continuity, a huge sprawling saga that stretches across multiple movies and formats. The individual works stand alone but there is always recognition that this is a part of a greater whole. Was the world clamoring for this? Probably not, but it is an interesting experiment; one which I don’t think has been tried before, at least at this scale, although Star Wars is about to attempt it, as is DC. It is a grand experiment and I’m excited about it.
A pattern is beginning to emerge in the project. The established tentpole properties, i.e. Captain America, and The Avengers, depict major events in the universe’s history and then the TV shows fill in around the margins. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is still picking up the pieces from Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Daredevil is dealing with the consequences of New York being almost destroyed by the Chitauri in the first Avengers film.
So now it is time for another major event in the MCU. Tony Stark, has developed the Iron Legion, a semi-autonomous unit of robots based on his Iron Man tech, to handle routine tasks like evacuations while he or the Avengers directly fight the bad guys. The Iron League is deployed when the team raids one of Hydra’s last remaining strongholds in Sokovia. There they recover Loki’s scepter. Stark studies it and discovers that it contains a powerful artificial intelligence that he can copy and try and install in his robots creating a world police force that will deal with threats automatically before they get out of hand. This proves to be a mistake as the technology becomes self-aware and quickly comes to the conclusion that mankind needs to be eliminated. Thus Ultron, voiced and played in motion capture by James Spader, is born. Ultron lives in the cloud. He can download himself into any robot or multiple robot bodies to do battle with Avengers. Ultron also has allies in the twins Wanda and Pietro Maximoff, played by Elizabeth Olsen and Aaron Taylor-Johnson. They are the result of Hydra experiments to create people with enhanced abilities. Wanda, aka the Scarlet Witch, is able to use her mental powers to cloud people’s minds and shoot out scarlet colored energy beams. Pietro, aka Quicksilver, is a speedster.
Like the latest Captain America movie this film is a lot darker than its predecessor. The stakes are higher and the lines between right and wrong are blurrier. This is, after all, a threat of Tony Stark’s making. It also shows the team’s divisions straining the seams that hold it together, the main conflict being Tony Stark’s desire for security against Captain America’s desire for freedom.
At the same time it shows them becoming more familiar with each other. They attend Stark’s party to celebrate getting the scepter back. There’s a scene where they all try to pick up Thor’s hammer, much to the Thunder God’s amusement. They tease Captain America unmercifully when he chides someone for saying a curse word. At the beginning they work pretty well as a team.
This film deals with complex emotions and themes and is a prime example of the growing sophistication of the superhero film genre. Happily it has forced DC and Fox to up their games, although with mixed results. At the same time Age of Ultron delivers the requisite set pieces and spectacles. It is a really good film but it’s not as much fun as it used to be.
It also leads to the question of how Marvel proceeds with this series. Robert Downey Jr. and Chris Evans have already voiced desires to step away from their roles and move on. Obviously bucketloads of money can fix that problem. But only for a while. They are getting older and movies are not comic books where you can stop the characters from aging. At this point can you imagine someone other than Robert Downey Jr. playing Iron Man? Even if you could you can’t cast someone younger without spoiling the continuity. Maybe they’ll bring it all to some kind of unimaginably spectacular climax and then reboot the continuity and build it up again. I’d like to see a few years between iterations in that case, just to let us savor the accomplishment. But that’s not likely to happen. There’s simply too much money to be made.
They’re smart over at Marvel and they’ll figure something out, I’m sure. But I keep remembering that I once thought that Pixar was untouchable and then they stumbled. That’s why I like the reboot idea. Bring this to a satisfying conclusion while you’re still on the top of your game.

Animated Features 2014

The DVD of The Tale of Princess Kaguya came in the mail Friday and after having watched it, I can now comment on this category. They’ve been handing out Oscars for Animated Features since 2001 and it has always had a probationary feel to it for me, like they could cancel the category at any time. It was created in those heady days when we in this country were just discovering anime from Studio Ghibli and Pixar was flexing its muscles. The great Disney renaissance with The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast was not that many years in the past. There was talk of films like Toy Story getting a Best Picture nomination. Nowadays, however, Pixar has stumbled, Miyazaki has retired, and Disney only puts out a traditional ink and paint feature every few years and it can’t be counted on to be a masterpiece every single time. Sadly no one has stepped forward to fill these voids and I fear we are entering a fallow period. I suppose that there have been years when no live action film has been worthy of Best Picture, but with my confidence in the infallibility of Pixar shaken, I think the drought for animated films could last a good long time.
In any case, none of the films nominated for this year’s award are great. Most of them don’t even achieve good. The Boxtrolls is a movie for kids who like gross humor. Song of the Sea is pleasant enough, but hardly inspiring. The Tale of Princess Kaguya is long and slow and the payoff at the climax isn’t really worth the wait. Big Hero 6 is an unimaginative dip into the superhero genre by Disney. This leaves us with How to Train Your Dragon 2 as my pick, simply because I didn’t dislike it as much as the competition. The first one was good but it had the misfortune to come out in the same year as Toy Story 3.
Ugh. Hopefully, I’m wrong and there will be better years ahead.

Oscar Picks 2014

I was in pretty good shape when they announced the nominations on January 15. There were only four films I had to see. The worrying thing was that there was a firm opening date on only one of them, Still Alice. Fortunately I discovered a theater down in Raleigh that was showing Two Days, One Night, so the Best Actress category is covered.
The problem is Animated Feature. I was hoping that The Tale of Princess Kaguya, which is being released on DVD today, would be available to stream on Amazon Prime or iTunes, but alas it is not. So I am going to release this without commenting on Animated Feature. If I get the chance to see that last one, I’ll release my thought in a separate entry. Based on the four entries I’ve seen to date, it doesn’t look like a good year for Animated Features anyway.
By the way, if you live in the Triangle, keep an eye on the Raleigh Grande 16. Mostly it shows the usual mainstream fare, but it also devotes one or two screens to independent or foreign films, often getting them before the Carolina or the Chelsea. They had Foxcatcher a month before it opened in Durham and Two Days, One Night still hasn’t opened up here. It doesn’t replace the old Galaxy Theater, but it does provide another option.
Anyway, on to the picks. I remind you as always that these are not predictions. If you need help with your office pool, go to Goldderby.com. They do a great job and they are the main reason I have so few films to see when the nominations are announced. What I do is select the films that I would give the Oscar to.

Supporting Actress
Since we already knew Meryl Streep could sing, I don’t believe she is really stretching that much in Into the Woods. It’s a fun and fine performance but there are better ones in this category. Laura Dern is barely in Wild, appearing only in flashbacks. It’s fine as far as it goes but there needs to be more. Keira Knightley gives a good, conventional performance in The Imitation Game. To me it didn’t really stand out.
So it comes down to Patricia Arquette and Emma Stone. Arquette has that toughest of all acting jobs in Boyhood, playing an ordinary person with few quirks, eccentricities or flamboyant insanities. What’s more, she had to keep her through line alive throughouy the twelve year shooting schedule, showing her character’s growth, while keeping her the same character. I won’t be upset if she wins.
I’d give it to Emma Stone, however. Her performance in Birdman is riveting as she captures the acidic resentment of her recovering addict character along with the vulnerability of a daughter trying to decide if she wants her father back in her life, and a young girl still naïve enough to have her head turned by a pretentious actor. You can’t take your eyes off her, even though you don’t really like the character.

Supporting Actor
Robert Duvall phoned in his performance in The Judge. He did well but we’ve seen it before. His nomination is for being Robert Duvall, just as Meryl Streep’s is for being who she is. The only thing I would point out is that when they get nominated for these unchallenging roles, some other deserving actor whose career could use a boost gets left out.
Of the rest of the performances there are three that are great and deserving and one that is for the ages. Mark Ruffalo gives us a convincing portrayal of a competent older brother who seemingly has all the answers in Foxcatcher. For Birdman, Edward Norton plays that pretentious actor who likes to stir things up, by either being difficult or provocative and even though this is probably not far from who Edward Norton actually is, he deserves praise for getting it on screen so well. Ethan Hawke’s role in Boyhood, like Patricia Arquette’s isn’t very flashy but that’s what makes it a challenge. He does a tremendous job of showing his character maturing into his role as a father.
But J.K. Simmons will and should win. He casts aside his amiable image to give us a fire-breathing, manipulative antagonist in Whiplash. The only argument you can make for him to not win it is that his role is arguably a lead.

Best Actress
Let’s face it: If an upset of biblical proportions happens and Julianne Moore doesn’t win this category, the angels will weep. She delivers a transcendent performance that completely overpowers a flawed script and saves the movie.
That’s not to say the other performances are unworthy. This is a very strong category this year. Rosamund Pike leads us through the twists and turns of Gone Girl’s plot with unsavory glee. Felicity Jones gives us the remarkably strong woman behind the great man in The Theory of Everything. Marion Cotillard plays an insecure woman desperately trying to save her job in Two Days, One Night. And finally Reese Witherspoon gives a brave performance about a woman trying to atone for her mistakes and heal herself by hiking the Pacific Crest Trail.
Unfortunately for all those other woman, their great performances come in the same year as a transcendent one. Julianne Moore will and should win.

Best Actor
This is the deepest category. Any of these performances would be a good choice. I didn’t care for American Sniper but Bradley Cooper did a great job of immersing himself into his character. He really transcended a flawed script. Plus he abandoned the tics and mannerisms that he’s relied on for the past few years.
In contrast Benedict Cumberbatch gives us a character in The Imitation Game that does not differ much from work he’s done in the past. But he is so good at playing the smartest person in the room, that it’s a joy to watch. And there actually are subtle differences between his Alan Turing and his Sherlock Holmes that he captures expertly.
Steve Carell’s role in Foxcatcher is a real eye-opener. He leaves behind his comic persona and portrays a man whose formative experiences are so different that he’s emotionally opaque. Rich people don’t even go nuts the same way we do.
Eddie Redmayne’s portrayal of Stephen Hawking is both technically accomplished and emotionally moving. He captures Hawking at every stage of his adult life, from cocky young undergrad to the respected scientist and scholar who is rendered unable to talk. All this while making him appealing.
But if it were up to me, the Oscar would go to Michael Keaton. His sad sack actor/playwright is a finely drawn portrait of a man pushed to the edge by the artistic constraints the entertainment industry is putting on him. Keaton has always excelled at playing people who were mad or on the brink of madness, but always in a quirky or eccentric manner. This madness is a little more realistic.
I will say that David Oyelowo should have been in this group for his powerful portrayal of Martin Luther King in Selma. I’m not sure which of the above performances you eliminate but he needs to be in here.

Best Director
Foxcatcher, The Grand Budapest Hotel, and The Imitation Game are all conventionally structured and filmed. The directing challenges do not extend beyond the normal ones faced in any film. That’s not to downplay those challenges. In The Grand Budapest Hotel, Wes Anderson continues to hone his peculiar style into something very special. He’s been doing this for quite a while and still gets better with every film. Bennett Miller got some great performances out of his actors in Foxcatcher and the same can be said for Morten Tyldum in The Imitation Game.
The nature of Boyhood, however, demands that Richard Linklater gain special mention. Filming a movie over the span of 12 years is something of a stunt but imagine the risks in a project like this. Someone could have died, or simply quarreled with the director and refused to do the scenes set in later years. That kid could have grown up to be a bad actor. Plus keeping a stylistic continuity over all those years had to be hellishly difficult even for Linklater who has a pretty consistent style in all his movies.
I’d give it to Inarritu for Birdman, even though I’ve kidded him all these years over his dark outlook on life. Those long tracking shots are technically difficult and his cast is so well rehearsed that they never miss their marks and never lose track of their characters either. It is a remarkable achievement.

Best Picture
American Sniper is a flawed film and does not belong in this category. Likewise I would not have included Boyhood. Call me old fashioned but I like a plot, especially in a film that runs almost three hours.
The other six titles all sort of clump together in my mind. Not in tone, mind you but in that I really can’t eliminate them for the big award for any reason that I can articulate. They are all fine films.
Whiplash, Birdman and The Grand Budapest Hotel are not your traditional Oscar fare. They don’t deal with weighty social issues or tell the story of a protagonist overcoming disability to achieve greatness. Still I would not be upset to see any of them win.
The remaining three are traditional Oscar bait but we shouldn’t hold that against them. A year or so ago, I used my Netflix subscription to see all the Best Picture winners that I hadn’t already seen. The thing that struck me was how consistent the type of film that wins is. Wings, the first winner, is a sprawling epic about war and love. Even though it’s silent, it feels very familiar. There have been outliers, of course, but for the most part, Hollywood’s tastes haven’t changed. This is the type of film that the Oscars were created to celebrate.
Selma deals with the most important issues. It is also a well-directed film with tremendous performances and visuals. The Theory of Everything is the most inspirational with a great technically difficult performance at its core. The Imitation Game deals with World War II and the treatment of gay people, so it has those issues going for it. And when it comes down to it that is the film I enjoyed the most, so it gets the nod.

So that’s it. As usual, pop some popcorn, and enjoy the ceremony.

Song of the Sea

In this gentle ink and paint animated feature, Ben, voiced by David Rawle and Saoirse, voiced by Lucy O’Connell, are two siblings living in a lighthouse on a remote island off the coast of Ireland in the 80’s with their father Conor, voiced by Brenden Gleeson. Their mother seemingly died giving birth to the younger Saoirse and Ben has never forgiven his sister for this. Yet they are united when their grandmother, voiced by Fionnula Flanagan, takes them away from their childhood home to live with her in the city.
Saoirse discovers that her mother was a selkie, a being that is a seal in the water and a human on land. It turns out that when there was trouble with the pregnancy the mother, Bronagh, voice by Lisa Hannigan had to return to the sea and deliver Saoirse as a seal. The girl was born with a white coat that marks her as a selkie as well. Her father keeps it locked away in a trunk.
It also turns out that Macha, some kind of Gaelic god has been turning the faery folk into stone by stealing their souls so they can’t feel emotion. Saoirse can turn them back if she wears the coat and sings a special song. The problem is that she is six years old and hasn’t spoken yet. The children must find their way home to retrieve the coat and save the faeries.
This is a pleasant enough confection, very much for children. The animation is basic and stylized, using blocky shapes and sharp edges. The children are sympathetic and the villains are not too scary.
It didn’t really leave much of a mark on me but I’m not the intended audience.

Still Alice

I wish they’d stop making these things.
Playing characters with handicaps has always been a near sure fire way to get an Academy Award nomination and lately it seems the handicap of choice is dementia. Now I don’t begrudge Julianne Moore the Oscar that she is undoubtedly going to win one week from tonight. Her body of work is one of the most impressive in film history and she probably should have won one long before now. But like I said in my review of Amour I went through this with my mother and I really don’t like watching movies about it. Unfortunately, I can’t ignore a Best Actress nomination, and so here we go.
Alice Howland is a celebrated linguistics professor who has a loving husband and grown children. Hers is an almost ideal life. That is until she starts to forget words. After a while it becomes obvious that something is wrong. She goes to a neurologist, at first without telling her husband John, played by Alec Baldwin, and is diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s disease.
This is not a happy tale, nor is it a medical drama, where they are racing to find a cure. There is no cure. Despite what we are told in creative writing classes and books it is possible to make these kinds of plots work. But unfortunately, the filmmakers fail at this. This is mainly because they chose Alice to be the viewpoint character. At the beginning this is fine, because Julianne Moore captures the terror of someone gradually realizing that something is horribly wrong. This is mixed in with the guilt that comes with the realization that her form of Alzheimer’s is genetic and that she has passed it on to at least one of her children. Her struggle to remain independent, using her smart phone as a peripheral brain and other strategies is heroic.
But as the disease progresses and Alice’s perceptions of the world get more disjointed, the plot falls apart. We see John separating himself from the situation, taking a job in Minnesota, but we don’t feel it, because Alice can’t feel it. At this point her life becomes a sort of montage, snippets of scenes that don’t leave any trace on her because she won’t remember them.
The other performances are fine. Alec Baldwin turns in his usual good job. Kristen Stewart is good as Lydia, the youngest daughter who wants to be an actress. Kate Bosworth is the oldest daughter and the one who knows that she has the gene. She’s good when she’s in the film but really isn’t in it enough.
So what we’re left with here is a transcendent performance wrapped in a mediocre film. Which is actually fine by me. I’m not sure I could handle a great film on this subject.

Two Days, One Night

Things are tough all over. I gather they are tough in Belgium anyway, because directors Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne have made a film about a young mother named Sandra, played by Marion Cotillard, who is in danger of losing her job at a solar panel company. Sandra struggles with depression and is set to come back from extended sick leave. In her absence, the company has discovered that they can get by with one less person. So they present this choice to their workers: bring Sandra back or forego their bonuses for the year. They take a vote on Friday, which doesn’t go Sandra’s way. Sandra and another supporter at the company convince the manager to hold one more vote on Monday. She has the weekend to change enough minds to keep her job.
You see the danger here, right? This is a repetitive plot. The movie is a series of very similar conversations. In lesser hands it could become boring. The filmmakers even emphasize this. In every conversation, Sandra explains the situation. And these are scenes, not a montage. They even exchange pleasantries, saying, “Hello,” and “Have a good weekend.” During the few phone calls, they say goodbye to each other. You almost never see that in movies and TV, because it slows the pace too much.
What saves this movie is the acting, specifically Marion Cotillard’s. She shows us a woman, not only struggling with her unfair situation but with her own demons. Sandra hates doing this; every conversation takes something out of her. When her coworkers get upset or start arguing with her or even get blubbery when explaining why they need the bonus, her instinct is to quit. Her mood shifts with the outcomes of the conversations. When they go her way, she smiles and is optimistic; when they don’t she pops some more Xanax and curls up in the passenger’s seat in the car, while her longsuffering husband, Manu, played by Fabrizio Rongione, worries about her.
The most impressive thing is that you don’t really like Sandra. She’s a bit whiny. And yet Cotillard makes you care about what happens to her. Much of the camera time is spent in close-ups of her expressive face.
In a film like this, you wouldn’t expect there to be much in the way of inspiring visuals. But once again the Dardenne’s emphasize what could have been a weakness. The composition of the shots is cluttered, showing telephone poles and the rundown exteriors of the houses, emphasizing the mundane details of lower middle class life in Belgium.
About halfway through the film, I noticed that when the conversation wasn’t going Sandra’s way, they would compose the shot so that a vertical line would separate her from the other person, usually a doorway or the corner of a building. It may be a little obvious but it’s an interesting use of the camera in what could have been a visually uninteresting film.
I have a few gripes. Manu, her husband is a little too saintly. It’s hard to imagine anybody in that situation not getting a little impatient with her. I won’t spoil it but there is something that happens towards the end that strains credibility.
But overall Two Days One Night is a very good film.


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