Mad Max: Fury Road
While We’re Young
The Last Five Years
Stark. Silky. Smoky. Smooth. Almost purely visual — always the best way to go! Blacklisted filmmaker Jules Dassin’s 1955 French crime film Rififi is a masterpiece of pure cinema, a striking example of form complimenting narrative, with not one wasted moment or superfluous scene. This elegant caper film revolves around four criminals who pull off a daring heist, with the centerpiece theft comprising of nearly 30 minutes of screen time, and unfolding in a virtually silent fash…ion. I love all of the details that Dassin lays out for the viewer, as the script is terse and rigid, totally befitting the hard-edged nature of the entire piece. Jean Servais, Robert Manuel, Carl Mohner, and Jules Dassin himself were all terrific as the gangsters, and Philippe Agostini’s cinematography is worthy of study by all young camerapersons. Dassin would win Best Director at the Cannes Film Festival for his work on this film, which still stands to this day as one of the absolute best French noirs to ever get produced (or at least that I’ve seen). There was talk roughly a decade ago about Harold Becker directing a remake from a Bo Goldman script that would have starred Al Pacino; I’m glad this notion came to pass. This is one of those films that should NEVER be remade, no matter how good the intentions might be. There’s no doubt that this movie had to inspire Michael Mann when crafting his epic crime thrillers Thief and Heat.
Déjà Vu is a mind-bending thriller with fantastic nods to real-world science fiction, a genre that Tony Scott only had the chance to dip into once. Snazzily photographed by Paul Cameron (Collateral, Man on Fire), Déjà Vu contains some incredibly rendered explosions (the one that opens the film is mind-blowing in its intensity to be perfectly honest), a heady murder/conspiracy plot, and one of the coolest car chases ever devised (it’s certainly one of a kind). When a massive bomb goes off killing hundreds of Navy sailors and their families, ATF agent Doug Carlin (a headstrong Denzel Washington) is called in to investigate. However, he never would suspect that the U.S. government has time-travel technology that might be able to help catch the terrorist (a sleazy Jim Caviezel). The production design in Déjà Vu is extraordinary and one of the film’s best assets; the fast moving computer images and zooming of the time-machine’s controls keep your head buzzing. And then there’s the breathless car chase set on a bridge in which Denzel is in two planes of time at once, trying to track the killer via his whereabouts from four days previous. As his character says mid-chase, “This is trippy!” It’s probably Tony’s most underrated movie, a film that’s smart, exiting, and as usual for the filmmaker, filled with lots of heart. At its core, the film is a romance, about a man falling in love with a dead woman, only this time, he might have the chance to bring her back and have the opportunity for her to reciprocate the feelings. As always with a Tony Scott film, the supporting cast was ace; Val Kilmer, Bruce Greenwood, Adam Goldberg, and the spectacularly gorgeous Paula Patton as Denzel’s love interest round out the proceedings. Coming off the box office failure of Scott’s passion project Domino, this was his way of retreating within the safe confines of a Jerry Bruckheimer production (their sixth and final), but you can still tell from the restless visuals that he still had plenty of style to burn. This is easily one of the artsiest, most gorgeously conceived big-budget movies of all time, with each image retaining a stark visceral quality as well as the occasional descent into expressionistic realms; even when making “one for them,” Tony Scott was never content to play it 100% safe. There’s even an existential bent to the film, which automatically kicks it up a notch; I doubt all involved knew how well this one would ultimately turn out. With a silly 55% Rottentomatoes score and only $180 million in worldwide box office ($65 million in the U.S., where it was overshadowed by Casino Royale during the busy Thanksgiving movie season), it really stands as undervalued and underappreciated.
Tomorrowland is the most expensive movie that Joe Dante never got a chance to make. It’s a lot of fun, a creative blast of thoughtful ideas and colorful imagery, trading off of familiar properties while still retaining a unique identity to call its own. For a film to be this dependent on CGI and special effects, for the most part, the visuals are stunning, due in large part to Claudio Miranda’s luminous cinematography. This is the genius who shot The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and The Life of Pi, and as such, Tomorrowland has a twinkle-glisten aesthetic that’s beyond eye-catching. The busy – and I mean busy – plot involves so many elaborate ingredients, and while the finale spends a bit too much time with people explaining stuff rather than showing, it’s a minor quibble to lob at a $180 million gamble (given that it’s not based on a toy or a comic book or a lunch pail or a remake of something) that clearly has tons on its energetic and fertile imagination. Gee-whiz filmmaker Brad Bird and co-writers Damon Lindelof and Jeff Jensen throw in allusions to Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, The Wizard of Oz, Indiana Jones, Epcott Center and good old Walt Disney himself, television’s Lost, with nods to real life inventors and scientists whose greatest achievements might have been even greater if they had the opportunity to play with the technology of today and tomorrow. There’s a wide-eyed wonder to much of Tomorrowland, carrying a massive whiff of Amblin-inspired Spielberg movie-magic, with The Beard’s influence felt over much of the film, from having children act as fearless lead protagonists, adults who need to be shown the way, and a bright eyed optimism that extends from the themes to the visuals. This is as earnest of a blockbuster as I can think of, crafted with a ton of heart, never feeling shallow, if for no other reason than it just so clearly wants to be seen as an alarm for what might occur to our planet if we don’t stop and look around to see what it is we’re doing to the place we call home. Yes, Tomorrowland is as liberal as it gets, with Clooney essentially playing a version of Bill Maher (minus the cursing), and the core of the story involves an incredibly overt plea for environmental activism. As it should. We’ve been destroying our planet with casual disregard for years, and we absolutely love paying next to no attention to the consequences; climate change deniers will positively hate this film, and I’m glad, because it further underscores the diseased notions that these monumental asses are espousing to weak willed individuals who look to Fox News for their main source of daily information. Brad Bird, no stranger to blockbusting with a touch of the humanistic (Ratatouille, The Iron Giant, The Incredibles, Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol), directs as if he were making a live action Pixar movie – anything, and I mean anything – is possible in the world of Tomorrowland. The PG-rating, as is customary for a Spielberg-influenced production (his name may not be on it but there’s no way this film would have been made without his iconic cinematic contributions), is stretched to the max, and while kids will enjoy the incredible sights and sounds, the themes and messages are going to sore way over their heads. As I said up top – this felt at times like a passionate movie from the likes of 80’s master Joe Dante (Explorers, Matinee, Innerspace, Gremlins) – a filmmaker who always brought a sense of awe and wonder to his efforts. Britt Robertson is going to be a BIG star; she’s got a wonderfully expressive face and the perfect type of optimistic attitude to bring to a project such has this. And wow, loved the performance from Raffey Cassidy, who makes you care in all the correct spots. And as always, Clooney is the reliable anchor, allowing himself to be continually upstaged by his younger co-stars, while navigating the demands of a summer blockbuster with grace and class. I only hope that parents take their kids to see this instead of upcoming schwill like Pixels or more-of-the-same from Marvel Studios. Embrace the idea that sometimes a family movie can be made that isn’t afraid to show some mental creativity to go along with the special effects.
The White Dawn is a rugged, cold, manly film, directed with an intense muscularity by Philip Kaufman (The Right Stuff, The Wanderers). Released in 1974, the film tells the story of three whalers who become stranded in the Arctic Circle in 1896, and details their rescue by Inuit strangers. Warren Oates, Timothy Bottoms, and Louis Gossett, Jr. are the three men trapped in the barren tundra, unaware of how their cultural differences could potentially lead them down a path of violent conflict with their saviors. Shot on location on Baffin Island in Northern Canada, the film feels desolate and forbidding, with the constant snow and wind peppering the visuals and soundtrack with an icy chilliness that you can feel in your bones. What’s more, the filmmakers employed authentic dialect on the part of the Inuit characters, in many instances sans English subtitles, which ratchets up the tension and the verisimilitude of the entire project. Based on the 1971 novel The White Dawn: An Eskimo Saga, original author James Houston was able to co-write the screenplay with producer Martin Ransohoff and Thomas Rickman (Coal Miner’s Daughter), which details how the whalers ingratiate themselves into the Inuit tribe, and then how they slowly try to take control over the group by foisting their American/European values on a group of people who have become accustomed to a VERY particular way of life. Warren Oates makes the biggest impression (no surprise) out of the trio of rapscallions, playing a boozer who is more than happy to teach the natives the values of the drink and gambling, while Bottoms’s affair with one of the women certainly raises some local eyebrows. But the most impressive aspect of this production was clearly the physical demands that Kaufman placed on his brave crew and dedicated cast, many of whom were clearly amateurs. There are shots that defy logic (especially for the time and on the relative miniscule budget when compared with today’s blockbuster standards), with Michael Chapman’s bleak cinematography offering up a blunt, unassuming, and matter of fact view of this harsh lifestyle, while the musical score by Henry Mancini is appropriate in all respects, never overpowering the story, but contributing to the overall sense of exploration and finally dread that settles in for the characters. This is a macho stuff, and I’d recommend it to anyone who likes survival based cinema.
**CAUTION – SPOILERS**
“Where must we go, we who wander this wasteland, in search of our better selves.”
-The First History Man
George Miller’s Fury Road is the most progressive, thematically subversive, studio-funded blockbuster I’ve ever seen. Last weekend, upon first viewing, I was totally overwhelmed and gob-smacked by the intense physicality of the production; it felt as if my eye-balls were melting. Today’s second viewing has confirmed it: The is not only the best action movie of my lifetime, but it’s easily one of the best, most visually creative, and all together absorbing films – in any genre – that I’ve had the pleasure of experiencing. Now that I knew what to expect from this beast on a narrative and physics-defying level, I was able to really sit back and allow the story, of which there’s plenty, to wash over me, along with those pulse-pounding visuals matched by the thoroughly amazing musical score, instead of just staring in slack-jawed amazement at the screen. This is the most disciplined summer movie that I can think of, not a hair over two hours, knowing exactly when to call it quits, ending on a narratively satisfying note that doesn’t require a sequel to be fully pleased with. It’s also, without question, one of the finest (and most overt) Anti-Religion statements to come out of Hollywood in a long while; Miller clearly shows a disdain for the notion of blind worship, and it’s exhilarating to see all of the pieces come crashing down around Immortan Joe, a brilliant creation that seems like a visual and sonic hybrid of Darth Vader and Bane with all sorts of psychological internal logic that’s gone greatly askew. This is the strangest movie ever to carry such a lofty price-tag, and when coupled with the decidedly adult R-rating, it’s a film that boldly changes the game for all other impending spectacles. I’ve grown increasingly tired of the Marvelization of action films, with the PG-13 rating blurring the line repeatedly between honesty and disservice – give me something that grabs me by the balls (and heart) like Fury Road any day of the week over the latest exploits of computer-crafted superheroes who constantly need to deliver a joke at the end of all the mayhem.
Miller shrewdly uses CGI only in spots that are absolutely necessary (the sand-storm, body replacement, crowds of extras), and even more so than the first time, the stunt work and assorted acts of bodily insanity are positively transfixing to behold. This movie is bonkers at all times, showing you sights that you’ve never seen before – and to be honest – why else should we be going to the movies other than to see something new and exciting and potentially unhinged from the cookie-cutter norm. And when Miller unleashes his big CGI money shot right at the close of the final action scene, it’s all the more impressive and allowable, because he’s gone out of his way NOT to bombard you with stuff that takes you out of the reality of the situation. Even during the big sand-storm set-piece, there’s a surreality to the visuals that cancels out any feelings of artificiality; it’s here that Miller embraces the pop-art aspects of comic-book-inspired filmmaking and takes it to the extreme, way past the next level, practically inventing new levels along the way. But Miller isn’t just content to slam us with insane action scenes – he demands that we pay attention to the kinky subtext and surreal flights of fancy. Those lactating obese women chained up to produce gallons upon gallons of “Mother’s Milk;” the Crazy Electric Guitar Guy who serves as a version of a Revolutionary War-era bugle boy who just so happens to be wearing a mask made from the facial skin of his dead mother (or so said an interview/article I just read…); the willowy and sad “stilt-people” who are glimpsed during that eerie mid-film sequence bathed in varying shades of desert nighttime blue, suggesting years of forgotten starvation; the extrication of a dead fetus from its recently slain mother, a woman who would rather have been killed (along with her unborn child) if it meant that she’d have to spend any more time under the power of Immortan Joe – this is a filmmaker who threw it ALL in there, and it all adds up to a wild explosion for the eyes, ears, and brain.
The final 30 minutes are tantamount to the best extended action scene ever devised, inviting a sense of awe and loony madcap into the proceedings which felt cut from the same exuberant cloth that Miller’s masterful Babe: Pig in the City originated from; the bad guys swaying back and forth on those long pogo-sticks are a dead ringer for Babe and all of his animal friends swinging from the rafters of the grand ball-room at during the wild climax of Pig in the City. The editing by Miller’s wife, Margaret Sixel, is beyond incredible to witness, as thousands of cuts rush before your eyes yet still retaining a coherent fluidity, not to mention an extreme emphasis being placed on geography and spatial distance between characters and objects. Exposition is close to non-existent, backstory is conveyed visually, hokey dialogue is kept to a minimum, and the primal, internal method-acting stylings of Tom Hardy brilliantly counterbalance the unleashed ferocity and fuck-it-all-attitude of Charlize Theron’s Furiosa, who will go down in history as one of the greatest action heroes of all time. Sick and tired of seeing the five captured women being raped and humiliated (because, after all, that’s what these women are – rape victims), she says enough is enough, and kicks anyone’s ass who comes into contact with her. Nicholas Hoult is spectacular, even more so on second glimpse, as an alliance shifting Warboy, a slave to Immortan Joe, who really loves to spray that silver paint in his mouth to get that one last high right before he heads off to Valhalla. I fucking LOVED this movie on every single level. You have your head in the sand if you’re ignoring this monumental piece of cinema. As I said last weekend – cancel the rest of the summer movie season because nothing will be this show-stopping, this visceral, this in your face. Miller has bitched-slapped everyone. The contempt that he shows for the ideas of mass worship were bracing and awesome for a non-believer such as myself, and I loved how the unrelenting energy of the entire film extends from one scene to the next, even when the story is clearly trying to catch its breath, which is a nearly impossible task. John Seale’s radiant and eye-popping cinematography at times recalls the work of David Lean, shooting vistas with a master’s touch, and then getting up close and personal to the vehicular destruction and carnage that is so lovingly displayed in real-time with real stunt men and women and real explosions and real debris and real sand and real smoke by people who seemingly could have cared less for their safety. Make no mistake – I’ll see this film again for a third time in theaters.
I’m a big fan of vigilante revenge movies. Harry Brown is a terrific example of an effective genre piece, stripped down to its base elements, shoving a nasty and grim narrative in our faces, and providing for an excellent performance from Michael Caine as a widowed Royal Marine veteran who becomes incensed over the violence and depravity lurking in the shadows of his hardscrabble neighborhood. He gets especially pissed off when his best friend is despicably murdered by a group of thugs. Aggressively directed by Daniel Barber from a ruthless screenplay by Gary Young, Harry Brown lives in the same world as potent flicks like Death Wish and Gran Torino, offering up a nasty set of violent showdowns that pit Caine against a series of young hoodlums, who are slinging drugs, murdering innocents, and showing a casual disregard for human decency. I get a charge out of seeing bad things happen to bad people, so a film like this one is right up my alley, playing to my primal instincts, allowing for amazing emotional catharsis as Caine dispatches one piece of human garbage after another. Emily Mortimer is solid as a local cop looking into the various crimes that feature in the hostile and angry story; there’s a bitterness that permeates almost every scene of this dark, sordid film. If you don’t get a charge out of seeing Caine taking out the trash, and make no mistake – the baddies in this film are ugly and BAD – then I’m not sure what to tell you. Extremely well written with great observations and insights into the damaged male psyche and directed with a violent urgency that compliments the slow-burn nature of Caine’s work and Young’s hard-charging script in general, Harry Brown will make you sit up and take notice, as it’s a film that shows you societal ugliness right up front, never taking the audience out of the grips of a brooding, sometimes nightmarish scenario where anyone is fair game. A pre-Unbroken/Starred Up/’71 Jack O’Connell has an small but impressive role as one of the weaker hoodlums, who becomes prey to Caine’s unrelenting sense of vengeance.