Friday, May 29, 2015

Mad Max: Fury Road

MAD MAX: FURY ROAD (George Miller, 2015)

MAD MAX: FURY ROAD presents a vision of the future as an environmental hellscape, but in filmmaking terms it looks to the past for the rejuvenation of action cinema. From practical effects and stunt work to an editing strategy that allows the viewer to remain oriented in spite of some quick cutting, director and co-writer George Miller gives an audience what it needs to cleanse the system of a diet of CGI-cluttered action and chaos cinema transitions. Make no mistake that plenty of digital technology has been used to manipulate the images into the eye-scorching display that is MAD MAX: FURY ROAD. The difference here is that it is not employed at the expense of visual comprehension or awe-inspiring feats.

Neither a reboot or a sequel per se, MAD MAX: FURY ROAD functions as a continuation in the series of one man’s quest to deliver justice to a land where it is in short supply along with fossil fuels, cash crops, and water. The opening voiceover is reminiscent of how MAD MAX 2 briefly establishes how the Earth became barren and tribes fought for the dwindling supply of fuel. The difference in this instance is that Max (Tom Hardy), the policeman turned renegade, supplies the information while conceding he is losing his mind.

At the start Max is captured by the war boys under the command of Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne). Max is prized as a blood bag for these suicidal, starkly white warriors. When a convoy led by Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron) in a war rig veers off course, Joe and some war boys take off in pursuit. Max is mounted like a hood ornament to provide transfusion for Nux (Nicholas Hoult) as he joins the car chase.

MAD MAX: FURY ROAD stands apart from much of contemporary action cinema with an unabashedly feminist perspective. Furiosa, who has degenderized herself, has attained a position of trust within a corrupt society and uses that privilege with a plan to transport Immortan Joe’s five sex slaves to the verdant community of women from which she and her mother were stolen many years ago. Furiosa and the those she’s trying to save seek shelter from where women are treated as livestock for breeding and milking. MAD MAX: FURY ROAD is a film of few words, and with an arsenal of looks Theron--who probably is more of a main character than Max, title notwithstanding--imparts the profound sense of rage and compassion that drives Furiosa.

In his souped-up action epic Miller also draws parallels to contemporary factions warring over fuel and the religious conviction imparted to those doing the fighting. The war boys do not fear death but welcome it with the promise of living again in Valhalla. The political aspects of MAD MAX: FURY ROAD sound blunter in description than in depiction, mainly because Miller lets the imagery and actors’ expressions do most of the talking. The screenplay is a model of efficiency, suggesting a broader world beyond what gets explained. MAD MAX: FURY ROAD pushes ever onward with an intense and dazzling display that engages the eyes, ears, and mind.

Grade: A-

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Lost Highway

LOST HIGHWAY (David Lynch, 1997)

LOST HIGHWAY follows the dual stories of tenor saxophonist Fred Madison (Bill Pullman) and mechanic Pete Dayton (Balthazar Getty) and the women in their lives who bring about their ruination. Patricia Arquette plays Fred’s brunette wife Renee and Alice Wakefield, a gangster’s blonde squeeze who initiates a torrid affair with Pete. Fred suspects his wife may be cheating on him and becomes disturbed when videotapes with footage shot inside and outside his house are left on his home’s front steps. Pete struggles to explain how he is found in prison having taken another man’s place.

In David Lynch’s singular style the Möbius strip of a film addresses the insecurities men have about women. Dark interiors hint at endless mental corridors to get lost in as these curdled souls obsess over the true motivations of the femme fatales they’ve fixated on. The low, persistent white noise on the soundtrack suggests a nagging concern hissing inside the protagonists’ heads that the women they love will do them wrong even as they are helpless to resist. The pale-faced Mystery Man (Robert Blake) who greets Fred and Pete familiarly seems like a manifestation of the anger and fear they’ve invited into their thinking. LOST HIGHWAY is suffused with dead of the night dread, a half-lucid, creeping sensation that one’s doom awaits in the shadows.

Lynch’s mastery of sustaining an unsettling tone carries the film through patches when the opaque plot confuses, yet watching this film not quite two decades later reveals his use of doubling and dream logic and atmosphere as a rough draft for the greater achievement to come in MULHOLLAND DR. LOST HIGHWAY’s mystery does not grow as it continues to befuddle. Pete’s section builds to confirmation of the horrible things both character’s believe their women are capable of doing to them, yet Getty doesn’t convey the torment inside of him as tangibly as Pullman does in Fred’s scenes.

When Fred has the police searching his house for signs of unlawful entry, he’s asked if he has a video camera. Fred responds that he hates the devices because he likes “to remember things my own way”. The tension in LOST HIGHWAY comes from the disconnect between the way things are and how they are recalled or imagined. With memorable and disquieting imagery, Lynch’s terror-fueled exploration of how latching onto the virgin/whore dichotomy can destroy men’s minds, but LOST HIGHWAY also plays like a less coherent version of the director’s better work.

Grade: C

Hot Pursuit

HOT PURSUIT (Anne Fletcher, 2015)

In HOT PURSUIT San Antonio police officer Cooper (Reese Witherspoon) grew up riding in the back seat of her father’s patrol car, so it’s deeply disappointing for her to be reassigned to run the evidence room after an embarrassing misunderstanding while working in the field. Cooper’s chance to prove herself again arrives when she is paired with a federal marshal transporting a drug cartel’s top lieutenant and his wife to Dallas in preparation for testimony to the grand jury against kingpin Vicente Cortez (Joaquín Cosio).

Shortly after Cooper and the federal agent get to the home of Felipe and Daniella Riva (Sofia Vergara), two pairs of killers descend upon it and kill Cooper’s partner and Daniella’s husband. The women escape in the Rivas’ red vintage 1968 Cadillac convertible, but trouble soon finds them when Cooper realizes two of her colleagues were masked assassins at the crime scene and are out to clean up loose ends. They pin the deaths on Cooper and spin the story that she and Daniella are on the run. In reality the two women are reluctant travel companions, as Daniella tries to slip away every chance she gets rather than be delivered to give testimony she refuses to offer.

Buttoned-up, by-the-books Cooper and the high-spirited and volatile Daniella make a classical mismatched pair in a road comedy, but HOT PURSUIT offers little in the way of humorous possibilities for their differences to produce laughs. Director Anne Fletcher and screenwriters David Feeney and John Quaintance focus on getting Cooper and Daniella from place to place at the expense of settling in with the characters. Content to let the co-leads exist as types, neither transcends the simple character descriptions to generate any legitimate comedic combustion or agreement.

Witherspoon and Vergara are up for whatever but don’t have much to work with. Half of the intended humor seems to reside in the accents. Witherspoon’s molasses-thick take on a Texas twang is a distraction. Vergara acts as though directed to crank up her Colombian heritage in a more exaggerated version of her MODERN FAMILY character. With both actresses it’s like the vocal equivalent of flop sweat. Who can blame them, though, when they’re forced into one unfunny scenario after another?

HOT PURSUIT’s regressive portrayals of women in film is more discouraging than its lack of subtlety. Comedy often flows from incompetent actions, but neither Cooper nor Daniella are shown to be particularly capable until the plot forces them to be. The low point comes when the women pretend badly to be lesbians to distract a good ol’ boy who’s about to call the cops on them. Rather than them being funny because they’re unconvincing, the scene plays as one of a few ill-conceived, pandering moments for which embarrassment for the performers is the main reaction.

Grade: C-

Friday, May 08, 2015

Mad Max

MAD MAX (George Miller, 1979)

The Halls of Justice are in shambles and anarchy reigns on the streets in the near-future depicted in MAD MAX. Roaming gangs terrorize citizens who risk straying far from home, especially those who dare to venture onto the roadways. Max Rockatansky (Mel Gibson) is the Main Force Patrol’s top pursuit man on a skeleton crew of law enforcers. Despite his skill behind the wheel in taking down bad guys, Max considers walking away from his calling. He’s not fearful of the sociopaths, like the motorcycle menaces led by Toecutter (Hugh Keays-Byrne), but concerned that he may enjoy the chaos out there as much as the maniacs he’s chasing.

MAD MAX’s dystopian vision of the Australia of tomorrow puts a contemporary spin on the classic western. It’s easy to see director and co-writer George Miller’s film in that tradition by swapping the motorbikes and cars for horses and Max’s leather uniform for one including a cowboy hat and bolo tie. The townsfolk are too scared and officials too ineffectual to challenge the tormentors in their midst. It’s up to a reluctant Max as one of the last righteous men to try and bring some justice to a land where lawlessness has taken over.

Miller and co-screenwriter James McCausland use the familiar genre foundation as a means for delivering chases and stunts. MAD MAX lacks any semblance of explaining why society has broken down as it has. That information comes more in MAD MAX 2, although it’s equally as unnecessary for films that function best as car chase and stunt delivery systems. This is primal action predicated on survival of the fittest and fastest motorized transportation. The action scenes tingle with the thrill of feeling the weight, speed and danger as these vehicles careen across the asphalt hunting grounds. The damage inflicted on the cars is not done lightly. One scene of a hot rod being destroyed is shot and edited as if it’s a body getting dismembered. Revving engines provide a chorus of wailing souls.

MAD MAX plays like a dry run for a bigger and better film, which happens to be the case when comparing this to its first sequel. The economy of story and character and abrupt ending make it feel as though this is just the first two acts of a fuller narrative. The interval with Max, his wife Jessie (Joanne Samuel), and their son on vacation drags down the pacing even as it sets up critical motivation for its conflicted protagonist. As villains go, Toecutter lacks the defining qualities to make him a worthy adversary for the hero. The B-movie genetic code keeps MAD MAX from achieving greatness, but the action Miller choreographs so well compensates for such shortcomings.

Grade: B-

Thursday, May 07, 2015

Clouds of Sils Maria

CLOUDS OF SILS MARIA (Olivier Assayas, 2014)

In CLOUDS OF SILS MARIA middle-aged actress Maria Enders (Juliette Binoche) is en route to accept an award in Switzerland on behalf of the reclusive playwright and filmmaker who provided her big break at the age of 18 when news comes of his death. The occasion provides cause for reflection on her life’s work and faded youth, especially when a director (Lars Eidinger) wants Maria to commit to his restaging of the career-making play but in the older woman’s role. Opposite her in the part she made her name on will be 19-year-old tabloid regular and Hollywood ingenue Jo-Ann Ellis (Chloë Grace Moretz).

In the play within the film Maria broke through as an intern who seduces, uses, and dumps the 40-year-old married businesswoman who falls for her. Now she’s being asked to switch positions to the part that more closely reflects her age yet still identifies with the younger character. Writer-director Olivier Assayas layers CLOUDS OF SILS MARIA so that the script being rehearsed and parts being played within it explore the similarities between the characters doing the reading and the roles they are taking on. When Maria and Valentine are deep in a scene, they could just as well be discussing the dynamic between them. Assayas also introduces a meta level in which comments about the industry, image-making, and gossip could just as well apply to the lives of Binoche, Moretz, and especially Stewart. This blurring of the lines isn’t a cute postmodern trick but a profound means for looking at aging, power, and celebrity.

Binoche is predictably great. As Maria she makes clear how to strive to stay viable in a business that probably gives her a shelf life of twenty years tops before brushing many like her aside. Binoche handles the dialogue-driven portions with incomparable artistry, but the greatest pleasures are often found in seeing her react. Whether it’s the unforced nature of her laugh or fiddling with 3D glasses at a banal blockbuster, she lives in the character’s skin. Stewart matches Binoche’s intensity and technical skill with an affectless performance that her highest profile role in the TWILIGHT films never tapped. She hides her character’s ambition in her attentiveness to Maria, almost like a child to an elderly parent, yet Valentine is willing to push back when she feels unheard or unappreciated. CLOUDS OF SILS MARIA offers complex gratification as the story snakes along and enjoyment as a superior acting showcase.

Grade: A

Friday, April 24, 2015

White Bird in a Blizzard

WHITE BIRD IN A BLIZZARD (Gregg Araki, 2014)

Kat Connors (Shailene Woodley) is 17 years old in the fall of 1988 when her mother Eve (Eva Green) disappears without a trace in WHITE BIRD IN A BLIZZARD. Eve was unhappy in her longtime marriage to Brock (Christopher Meloni) and did not disguise it. Kat’s father even tells her that her mother never loved him. Although Kat doesn’t appear overly distressed about Eve vanishing, Brock insists that she speak to Dr. Thaler (Angela Bassett) to deal with the unexplained loss.

Kat recalls her mother as anything but a maternal ideal. Eve could be brusque and seemed to resent a maturing Kat when she reminded her of her younger self. As Kat reflects on the last days when Eve was around, she admits that it is possible her mom could have been having an affair. In retrospect it certainly seems as if Eve was flirting with Kat’s stoner boyfriend Phil (Shiloh Fernandez).

Writer-director Gregg Araki presents WHITE BIRD IN A BLIZZARD’s sometimes lurid story as a mix of 1950s melodramas, 1980s teen movies with a decidedly harder edge, and a little bit of camp. Outsized emotional currents sweep the drama along to where words and developments can be tragic and laughable. Taking notes from John Hughes, Araki douses the film in a post-punk/New Wave soundtrack emblematic of feeling like wanting to dance and cry.

The suburban southern California settings look as if they have been preserved in Lucite. Araki maintains the spaces as though the homes and communities are hermetic places as inescapable as one’s inner conflict about the unremarkable life. The bright and glossy visual texture lends an artificial feel to scenes no one will mistake for the epitome of domesticity. In Kat’s memories Eve resembles Joan Crawford with her glamorous appearance and ability to wreak emotional havoc. Green gets just a moment here and there to leave her mark and indeed makes a striking impression as if Kat’s mother is a star of the silver screen trying to steal the spotlight in her daughter’s life. She’s a presence even when unseen.

Eventually Woodley will age out of these coming of age roles, but again she does good work playing a teenager trying to sort out a murky future. Kat is not naϊve about her sexuality and the power it gives her, but when it comes to understanding who her parents are, WHITE BIRD IN A BLIZZARD shows her to be more sheltered. Kat’s narration, which is hard to place in time, carries the wisdom of years later when she has processed revelations about her parents’ dreams, passions, and disappointments. Perhaps it comes when she can empathize with her 42-year-old mother because she recognizes the mental state and worldly knowledge inaccessible to her as a high school student.

Grade: B+

Thursday, April 23, 2015

While We're Young

WHILE WE’RE YOUNG (Noah Baumbach, 2014)

Each generation tends to look at the next one with some suspicion that they don’t live up to the standards they hold dear. As the saying goes, youth is wasted on the young. With Generation X in middle age, the time has come for them--us, in my case--to judge the habits, interests, and attitudes of millenials. In WHILE WE’RE YOUNG 44-year-old documentarian Josh (Ben Stiller) and his 43-year-old producer wife Cornelia (Naomi Watts) strike up a friendship with 25-year-old couple Jamie (Adam Driver) and Darby (Amanda Seyfried). Josh and Cornelia are childless and feeling increasingly alienated from their friends because of it, so they are drawn to the burgeoning filmmaker husband and his ice cream-making wife. Josh is especially taken with Jamie’s relentless optimism, DIY ethos, and unconstrained tastes and tries them on for size.

Writer-director Noah Baumbach opens WHILE WE’RE YOUNG with a passage from Ibsen’s THE MASTER BUILDER about being fearful of young people outside but encouraged to open the door followed by James Murphy’s toy box-sounding cover of David Bowie’s “Golden Years”. The film ends with the Bowie original and Wings’ “Let ‘Em In” on the soundtrack. The quotation and songs provide mirror bookends representing the aspirations Josh and Cornelia examine when faced with younger adults’ ways. Are they serious and cultured or sentimental and domesticized? When discussing their lives early in the film, Josh says, “Maybe the point is we have the freedom. What we do with it isn’t so important.” The pointed comedy of the comment is that the freedom they profess to cherish is really just a wasted resource they cling to rather than admit they’ve entered another time in their lives.

Baumbach mines the humor in the resistance to adapting to a new life stage, the foolishness of trying to act younger, and the perceived ridiculousness of how millenials assert their independence and preferences. Editor Jennifer Lame cuts Cornelia attending a mommy and me music class as if she’s entered a house of horrors. Josh suffers the indignity of looking older than he is by borrowing today’s youth fashion as if it suits him. WHILE WE’RE YOUNG practically drips contempt for what twentysomethings consider cool. Baumbach obliterates some easy targets, but the film is no less funny because of it.

Driver’s embodiment of a stereotypical hipster is a consistent source of jokes. After Josh’s infatuation with Jamie has ended, he describes his counterpart as imitating a sincere person he once saw. Baumbach doesn’t withhold any criticism of a younger generation he thinks can be vacuous and disingenuous, yet he doesn’t spare those in middle age. Where Jamie lacks boundaries and hides his careerism, Josh prizes the purist notion of not selling out and retaining authenticity, which are fine ideals until they become stifling to the point of inaction. WHILE WE’RE YOUNG soaks in the bitter comedy that comes in realizing that everyone is searching for answers.

Grade: B+

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Ebertfest 2015: Opening Night

Ebertfest holds a special place in my moviegoing life because it was the first film festival I attended. The experience could not have been better. The 2001 festival, it’s third edition, featured an exceptional mix of good to great films, was hosted by a film writer I admired and aspired to be, and was down to earth in a way that felt identifiably Midwestern. This was not an industry event but a populist celebration of cinema in a university town. I was hooked, and It’s why I’ve come to Champaign, Illinois every April for fifteen years now.

It may seem strange to see a movie before going to opening night of the 2015 Roger Ebert’s Film Festival, but the Art Theater, a short walk from festival central at the Virginia Theatre, was playing GREY GARDENS, which I hadn’t seen. Ebert mentioned the Art as being important to him , and he certainly encouraged locals at the festival to patronize it those weeks when Ebertfest wasn’t co-opting their moviegoing time. Inside the lobby over the entrance is a mural with the hometown critic sitting in the front row to the side next to Groucho Marx. The seating location isn’t where you were likely to find Ebert when he was at the movies, but it seems right for him to have such a place of prominence, if not the best viewing angle, in a picture featuring stars of the screen. When he attended his own festival, Ebert was always the biggest star in the room no matter what Hollywood performer or filmmaker was present.

Perhaps it was my own reservations about this year’s festival lineup--I’ll explain those feelings on another day--but opening night felt more muted than any other year I can recall. It could be that the lack of a “big” film or guest tamped down some of the excitement in the crowd. Maybe it was that I knew what was coming. To start things off, a 3-D film was being shown for the first time in the festival’s history. Not just any 3-D film, mind you, was beginning the 17th festival but Jean-Luc Godard’s GOODBYE TO LANGUAGE (ADIEU AU LANGAGE). Unlikely as it seems to me, I’d seen it twice before. While I have enjoyed it primarily as an aesthetic experience, GOODBYE TO LANGUAGE struck me as a uniquely terrible choice to start the festival. Late Godard can be hard to penetrate intellectually. Playful as it can be, this rigorous cinematic essay fits the description of a difficult film to a tee. I did not expect GOODBYE TO LANGUAGE to go over well with this audience, which isn’t to say that I doubt their tastes but that this is no one’s idea of a widely appealing film that might ordinarily fill the first slot on the festival schedule.

On viewing GOODBYE TO LANGUAGE a second time I found it extremely helpful to have read David Bordwell’s unpacking of the dense film. Knowing how to watch can make a huge difference in appreciating it. My third viewing didn’t yield any major revelations, but it confirmed that Godard captures images of exceptional beauty. The shot of one hand washing another looks clearer than reality. During a shot of a boat going away from the dock the undulating water looks so blue and welcoming. The doubling and overlapping of images and use and locations of sound make for a thrilling cinematic experience even if I have a hard time making heads or tails of it. To the Ebertfest crowd’s credit, I noticed just a few walkouts from my vantage point in the balcony. Opinions may be voiced more strongly against it while folks wait in line to enter the theater over the next few days, but on this evening my impression is that people wrestled with the challenging work rather than dismissing it outright. Could it be my doubts about the film's reception were unfounded?

Todd Rendleman, Peter Sobczynski, Goodbye to Language's Héloise Godet, and Matt Zoller Seitz
The night’s second session was also something unprecedented at Ebertfest. Instead of showing a film, a Harold Ramis tribute took place. Clips were shown from ANIMAL HOUSE, CADDYSHACK, STRIPES, NATIONAL LAMPOON’S VACATION, BACK TO SCHOOL, CLUB PARADISE, GHOSTBUSTERS, and GHOSTBUSTERS 2. Ramis’ widow Erica Ramis and producer Trevor Albert then joined Chaz Ebert and critics Glenn Kenny and Susan Wloszczyna to discuss his work from the earlier half of his career. Following the conversation were clips from GROUNDHOG DAY, STUART SAVES HIS FAMILY, ANALYZE THIS, MULTIPLICITY, THE ICE HARVEST, BEDAZZLED, ORANGE COUNTY, AS GOOD AS IT GETS, KNOCKED UP, WALK HARD: THE DEWEY COX STORY, and YEAR ONE. This portion was capped by a clip of Ebert and Gene Siskel reviewing GROUNDHOG DAY on their television show. The same people returned to the stage to talk about this part of Ramis’ filmography.

Context-free clips don’t exactly serve the work well, so I could have done without them even though I realize why they were incorporated into the program. I would have been content to listen to those Ramis knew and those who appreciated his talents talk about him. I really enjoyed seeing the Siskel and Ebert clip and would suggest knitting them into the festival when possible. How great would it be to watch the films at Ebertfest and follow them with pertinent reviews from the long-running TV show? Granted, these won’t exist with every film selected, and if there was a disagreement between the critics, some of the reviews might make for uncomfortable situations with a festival guest. Still, if done with care, this seems like a natural way of keeping Ebert’s voice in the festival.