Mad Max: Fury Road Review

Charlize Theron as Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road

Spoiler free!

In my mini review I posted to Twitter the other day I claimed that Mad Max: Fury Road is one of the best action films I’ve ever seen, and, moreover, that director George Miller proves that monuments of cinematic splendor are still possible. This statement involves at least two main suppositions. The first is that few films of late have been spectacular, and second, perhaps the most in need of an explanation, is that this film is spectacular.

As to the first point, I have been worried lately whether I had passed the age of optimistic participation in summer escapist cinema. This summer’s other big blockbuster, Avengers: Age of Ultron, left me decidedly unimpressed, despite its CG-fueled visual spectacle (especially in the way the plot structure borrows liberally from the The Empire Strikes Back, from the downbeat tone, to the continual pursuit of our heroes by a sinister, fascistic overlord, to the none-too-carefully inserted romance–hell, both films even feature a besieged city in the clouds as their climax!). The astounding degree to which I enjoyed Mad Max: Fury Road, however, confirms for me that though my standards may be demanding, they are not unreachable. Fury Road is that rare entertainment that excites its audience without pandering to it. Unlike a great many films these days, Fury Road seems directed by an individual vision that is staggering in its scope, rather than the consolidated whims of executive meddling and countless focus tests.

The first clue that the film doesn’t insult the intelligence of its viewer is with the title itself: Fury Road is double-entendre that even a cursory viewing of the film would reveal. The subtitle hints that the film belongs as much to Max as it does to Charlize Theron’s Furiosa. Perhaps even more so to the latter, since Theron receives a great deal more to do in this film than Hardy’s Max, who isn’t even granted a line until midway into the film, and much of the dramatic heft rests on her more-than-capable shoulders. It is she who often commands both our attention and sympathies in their scenes together. In the process, Theron reminds us of the immeasurable talent that made her such a superstar, and DP John Seale mines her face for all its expressive riches.

Though not an obvious sequel, this film nonetheless continues the themes of myth and legend that had animated the two previous films in the series, and Miller here broadens their scope to a veritable foundation myth of human society, but places the emphasis on the female and the feminine. In so doing, Miller transcends the nihilism of his previous films and dares to hope for a future better the past. The film’s final moments capture Miller’s vision of a true egalitarianism between sexes, creeds, races and class. And yet, because this is Miller telling (and in some ways yelling) the story, he reminds us that this utopia can only be achieved through violent struggle, and through a balance of the masculine and feminine, which are denoted so concisely and repeatedly by Miller through the use of sand and water. In so doing, Miller may have just created the first truly feminist action film.

Perhaps the film’s chief virtue comes from Miller’s singular ability to sustain our attention for chase scenes that extend well past the point of fatigue. That, or the unmistakable fact that it’s all being done for real, in the camera. Don’t let the spectacular CG sandstorm touted so frequently in the trailer mislead you, this film features the most impressive practical stunts of any Mad Max film. (It also even manages to outdo their sustained runtime.) But these films aren’t memorable simply because they have lots of car chases, but rather for way these cars are so uniquely used. In Miller’s films, action is not a mere substitute for dialogue and characterization, it is the skillful deployment of these. In much the same way that a choreographer communicates through dance, Miller speaks through action. Like the Road Warrior, and completely unlike the hyper-edited Furious series, this film features sublimely orchestrated automotive ballet, or, to offer a clunky neologism, automoballet. It’s perhaps ironic that Miller, now pushing 70, seems one of the only directors capable of directing action and editing it together quite so spectacularly, seamlessly, and most important of all, coherently.

But what gives the film its most lasting effect is that Miller goes beyond mere mayhem and uses every texture, object and element of the world to convey multiple layers of meaning. Cars serve as costumes. Costumes serves as identities. A steering wheel is a weapon is a talisman is a relic is a metonym for an entire culture, and all of this conveyed with the simplicity of a dramatic arm raise. More than mere clever prop design, and the desire for a cool but entirely superfluous shot, the raising of the wheel aloft like some mechanic’s Excalibur immediately and unmistakably constructs this world for us within a second of screen time, and the film lasts for thousands. Another instance of this masterful method of world-building again involves a wheel, when Furiosa rubs the steering shaft for axle grease and smears this across her forehead as a tribal marking, or a communicative address, or something else–the two-fingered gesture itself seems symbolic of something richer in meaning and all of which Miller leaves for the audience to deduce.

Miller’s responses in the wonderfully brief pre-screening Q&A I attended perfectly speak to the film’s succinct and evocative construction. After a pitiful attempt from the professional film critic and impromptu questioner to plug his online site and drum up enthusiasm for his credentials, he then tried to corral Miller into answering a few questions. When asked why it had taken thirty years for Max to return, the director only shrugged and said, respectfully and serenely, that he’d been looking for something to say with Max in that time. When asked what that might be, the director only shrugged again and suggested the message was on the screen. “I feel like a kid who’s just finished a drawing, who takes it to his mom and dad and asks them to look at it,” he replied. “Well,” he gestured to the massive AVX screen towering above him about to show his glorious return to the franchise that made him famous, “this is my drawing, I wonder what you think.” The concise response seems fitting for a director whose movie strips itself of language, in which words are irrelevant and, moreover, even what few can be heard are often swallowed up in the clash of metal and the cry of engines and living gods. Mad Max: Fury Road opens May 15, and truly deserves to be remembered for a great while after.

“Focus”: Film Review

Con artists are not lacking for terrific movies about them. Audiences were treated to a slew of them in the early 70s, starting with Joseph Mankiewicz’s masterful Sleuth, followed the next year by the Best Picture winning The Sting, which had Paul Newman and Robert Redford tag-teaming and two-three and even four-timing with aplomb. Even Orson Welles’ came out of quasi-self-imposed cinema exile to offer his still unparalleled film essay F for Fake in 1975, which continues to challenge audiences and critics alike with its ambiguous depictions of fraud and fakery. After the unmitigated failure of The Sting II, however, the genre quieted, with only a few treats in the 80s and 90s like John Cleese and Charles Chrichton’s caper A Fish Called Wanda and Minghella’s The Talented Mr Ripley. The genre arguably reached its heyday at the turn of the century, with Ocean’s Eleven providing a luxurious remake of a rather lackaidasical caper from the 60s, trading in that film’s notable Rat Pack for a slew of Hollywood elite, before Spielberg and Scott got into the game the following years with fine efforts like Catch Me If You Can and Matchstick Men, respectively. The makers of Focus seem at least partially aware of this rich history, indeed one of the film’s production companies is even called Ratpac-Dune (one named after the men, the other the former Las Vegas casino?), but rather than doing anything to enliven the genre, they struggle to offer anything remotely enjoyable.

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The Calls are Coming from Inside the House: Adam Wingard’s “The Guest”

After establishing himself amongst horror lovers as a quirky, smart and genre-literate director with You’re Next, Adam Wingard resists the easy request to imitate himself and instead makes an action thriller that blasts open the horror film highlights of the 70s and 80s to extract a post-modern glimmer of what made those films so cool. Continue reading

V for Vicissitude, V for Vendetta


Though today is not the fifth of November, one still would be well served to remember the importance of the nursery rhyme which bears this date. Remember, remember the fifth of November, the gunpowder treason and plot; the sentiment of these simple lines is pushed to its utmost in Alan Moore’s and David Lloyd’s incendiary agitprop anarchistic graphic novelism in the form of the anarchistic terrorist-cum-ideologue V.

Though published in the internecine political warfare between the Labour and Conservative parties from 1982 to 1989, it was not until the equally fraught period of British society in 2005 that the material was eventually adapted into a film starring Natalie Portman and Hugo Weaving, directed by James McTeigue. Or rather, 2005 would have been the release year of the film, on the 400th anniversary of the Gunpowder Treason Plot no less, had WB Studios decided not to delay the release in the wake of London’s horrific 7/7 bombings.

Though the missed opportunity to have the film premiere on this precipitous and propitious date is regrettable, more regrettable still is that the film does little to engage with the very brand of ideological violence which provoked the bombings and which the graphic novel examines (hereafter referred to by the less pretentious designation of “book”). Had it done so, perhaps the film might have retained its original date, or at least the filmmakers and studio could have embarked on a much needed and undoubtedly valuable discourse on the politics of this century. Instead, those involved squandered their chance, as the film squandered its full potential. Though perhaps my criticism is unwarranted, since the book answers questions the film doesn’t dare to ask: What is the measure of villainy? Of heroism? The depths of compassion and the heights of our capacity for cruelty? But then, ought any text dealing with the political strive to grapple with just this dimension of our humanity? Continue reading

On Giving Credit Where it’s Due

After some derisory remarks I made in my review of Godzilla regarding its script, I had a thoughtful and useful question put to me. I was initially going to reply in the comment section of that post, but as my response developed into a more elaborate exploration of acceptable protocols for determining who to credit with a film’s successes and who to blame for its failures, I decided to feature it as a post.

A rough precis of the question is as follows: does my review of Godzilla essentially establish a baseless dichotomy that credits director Gareth Edwards for all the good bits and blames the screenwriters for all the bad?

To begin with the very suggestion of the question before I get into its specifics: while it is true that I let Edwards off rather easy in my review and ensuing comments, I deny that I make this the case in my reviews rather than the exception. I do not subscribe to the fallacy of assuming the name on the credits tells the whole story of that person’s involvement in the finished film. To use one telling example: David Koepp might have written the inept and pedestrian script for Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, but it was Spielberg who takes a sort of masochistic pride in claiming the idea to “nuke the fridge” (one can only wonder what was in the script before that nail in the integrity of the series landed).  However, in the absence of direct testimony, we’ve only the credits to go by. It becomes necessary then to approach each credited individual of a film as guilty of his or her contributions until proven innocent. Regardless of this, it remains difficult, if not impossible, to be certain where to give credit or to lay blame. Indeed, I can imagine in some circles one of Godzilla‘s many producers bragging that it was he who came up with the finale, just as easily as I can imagine an uncredited writer doing the same–there’s no accounting for taste. Continue reading

Godzilla the Messiah Monster, and other atomic-age aberrations

(This review is spoiler-free.)

On the sixtieth anniversary of the original Godzilla, director Gareth Edwards reboot succeeds more by the strength of the director’s undeniable talent than it does its tired and pedestrian script. Infused with Edwards’ obvious passion for the material and the genre, the film is unfortunately perched on the rickety skeleton of action and disaster movie clichés. For all the passing similarities to real world analogues, little in the film is novel or particularly exciting, and the assortment of recycled ideas keeps Godzilla from ever reaching its full potential. However, considering that it’s Edwards’ first time directing a major tentpole film the results are more than competent. Continue reading

Watching the Sunrise: A Tribute

By way of introduction to F.W. Murnau’s masterpiece Sunrise, one can’t do much better than Rachael K Bosley’s remarks in the June 2003 American Cinematographer about the then recent DVD release of the film (which was, of all things, an odd mail-in promotion from 20th Century Fox):

At heart a simple melodrama about a philandering husband (George O’Brien) who rediscovers his love for his wife (Janet Gaynor), Sunrise is a film whose visual complexity was unmatched upon its release in 1927. It was the first American film made by German Expressionist director F.W. Murnau, and at the first Academy Awards ceremony in 1929, Sunrise earned the only such award ever bestowed for ”Most Unique and Artistic Production.” It also earned the first Academy Award for cinematography, an honor shared by Charles Rosher, ASC and Karl Struss (whom Rosher successfully nominated for ASC membership following Sunrise‘s release). Cinematographers of all ages continue to cite the film as a favorite. (16)

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When a documentary functions as an artistic credo: Jiro Dreams of Sushi

Judge of your natural character by what you do in your dreams.
–Ralph Waldo Emerson

(Jiro Dreams of Sushi is available on Netflix.)

When one first learns that the price for a plate at Jiro’s world-renowned sushi restaurant begins at 30,000 yen, or $300, the mind reacts in two ways. Either it balks or it bargains. If it balks, then perhaps it is reminded of similar outrageously expensive food, like that $1,000 pizza in New York. In that case, the rebarbative concoction, loaded as it is with caviar and lobster, wastes its ingredients while it overcharges for them. Nevermind the idiocy of baking truffles in creme fraiche (where the fat from the latter and the heat from the oven overpowers any nuance in the flavour of the former) and serving it on a pan of bread, the whole thing arrives to the customer a greasy, congealed mess fit only for the blind and nouveau riche. Don’t even get me started on the $25,000 sundae. If I wanted to ingest five grams of gold I would just drink a few bottles of Goldschläger in a single sitting (at least that way the alcohol would stand a good chance of blocking out the thought of wasting so much money). Compared to this then, $300 for an actual meal seems like a steal.
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The Danger of Needless Script Rewrites

Film poster for Gravity (2013)

With Gravity soon to hit bluray in what I have read is an impeccable and remarkable transfer, I figured in lieu of writing another piece about why this film is so great (since everybody has been doing that lately), I’d instead approach the film from a different angle, that of responding to its critics who attack the film for what they perceive as insurmountable flaws in the film (since everybody has been doing that lately, too).

Several months ago a man wrote to me describing his issues with the plot of Gravity, and enthusiastically offered me what he believed to be an improved rewrite. As an immense fan of the film, I was suspicious, but was nonetheless taken with his bravado. Reading his version I wanted to be positive, I wanted to agree with his central premise that his version was inherently superior, but as his specious claims mounted, my enthusiasm waned. I knew immediately that I was reading the ravings of one indoctrinated by devastatingly useless ideas, lost on a vainglorious crusade for the formula of the perfect script. To be clear, the ideas were sound in and of themselves, but troubling when proffered as the “improved” version of what was an already sufficiently realized plot. It amounted to a subjective opinion being passed off as incontrovertible objectivity. It completely overlooked the merits of the film as it was to describe a completely different version of the plot as it should have been according to the tastes of one man, bearing as much semblance to Cuaron’s vision of the film as Lindelof’s version of Prometheus did for Jon Spaits original script. Though, to be fair, his was more complete than Lindelof’s hack efforts. By the time I finished I contemplated turning off my computer and never penning a reply. I had almost nothing positive to offer in my criticism. But he had asked me for my thoughts, and I had never maintained any illusions with my readers about my affability.

The problem with the rewrite was that it sought to rewrite what was already a cogent film into something approaching the vast majority of other works produced these days. The rewrite argued for a seven-step process to improve the quality of the movie, ranging from features such as infusing moments of “weakness and need” to “self-revelation” (nevermind that the latter point requires we casually overlook such moments already present in Cuaron’s version). One of his fundamental claims was that the film’s plot as-is left him emotionally uninvolved without any sufficient reasoning. Continue reading

A Meaningful Murder in Star Wars Episode III

You’d be forgiven for thinking the original trilogy was a bit too coincidental, given that the whole Galaxy is ruled over by this one bad guy, and the only people who can bring down his Empire are his unwitting children. But Lucas wanted to keep things as a family affair, and it’s notable that rather than roll our eyes at the absurd improbability that Luke Skywalker would happen to find almost the only eligible human female in the galaxy just to discover she is, in fact, his sister (which actually makes some sense given the first condition), we instead accept all these coincidences as a matter of destiny. Part of the interest in Lucas’ original trilogy was precisely this appeal to myth and fantasy. His intent was, in his own words, a space opera, a science-fantasy in which destiny was the primary theme.

It seems though that Lucas ran out of things to say about this theme by the time he got around to finally making his new trilogy. Continue reading