May 19, 2015

Mad Max: Fury Road

Walking out of the theater after seeing Mad Max: Fury Road, I felt as though I’d been hit over the head. It is one of the few times I could describe a movie as jaw-dropping and actually mean it. The movie pummels you for two hours with exquisite violence in the form of car crashes, bloody knock-down-drag-out fights (of fist and sword and gun etc), and various other acts of carnage that add up to a two-hour-long chase scene. The director, George Miller (who also directed all three of the previous Mad Max films) is almost afraid to slow down, and the few fleeting moments of relative calm that we get, where characters are able to talk to each other or simply catch their breath, are like little oases in the desert.

But as exhausting as Fury Road is, the film is incredibly well-staged and impressively mounted. Miller isn’t showing any signs of the hardening which can befall directors later in their careers; the world of Fury Road is urgent and spare and terrifying, a world overcome by drought in which the humans have become monstrous, parched, shriveled creatures desperate for water. All of the Mad Max movies have tapped into a kind of Hills Have Eyes meets Escape From New York meets The Warriors feel. They have the look and mood of cult movies, and they exude the pleasures derived from the best kind of cinematic trash. (Trash in the most uplifting, happy sense of the word.) 

Miller’s latest film is maybe too big-budget and polished to look like those smaller efforts, and far too big, but it does retain that sense of grimy, rusted, dirty, freakish rot seeping into the world. The idea of physical wholeness has been thrown out the window; or maybe it has been redefined; likewise, our obsession with cleanliness and manners and decorum has been abandoned out of necessity. (There are lots of scenes involving people siphoning gas with their mouths, or directly spraying silver paint onto their faces, or taking savage bites out of their attackers or, as in one instance, to free themselves from mutual shackles.) Miller has reduced humanity to its fearsome skeletal remains, and what a fascinating thing it is to watch what the human body will endure or forsake in order to survive.

Tom Hardy heads the cast as Max, the tough-as-nails hero in George Miller’s desert wasteland, who becomes the prisoner of Immortan Joe, a powerful, cultish figure who has total control of the very limited water supply, and doles it out in criminally minute amounts to the parched masses who slavishly serve him. His cult has its own religion, and his devoted followers—the War Boys—believe that dying for him in battle is its own glorious reward. He’s also got a little harem of young women that he keeps pregnant, and it is their rescue and removal from the clutches of Immortan Joe with which the movie concerns itself. The plot is wonderfully simple, which may be one of the reasons that—despite everything operating on full force for so much of the time—we actually develop some feeling for the characters and their plight.

Tom Hardy is a terrific Max. He’s gruff and intense, but capable of softness as we see in a few moments in this film. He’s also a commanding presence on screen, even though he has relatively little dialogue, which comes out of him in quiet grunts and very low-range responses. Hardy is an exceedingly likable performer. He possesses the dumb lovableness of a young Marlon Brando (circa On the Waterfront), minus the arrogance; and he isn't dumb at all. Hardy is so imposing that we’re maybe tempted to think of him as simple-minded, when really he’s strategic and minimalistic in his movements and his speech. When called upon, he can deliver big dramatic touches that pull us into whatever he’s going through. (When he finally tells Theron's character his name, there's something very human and likable in his demeanor; he's clearly tender beneath all the necessary armor and battle scars.)

In so many ways, though, this is not Tom Hardy’s Mad Max. This is Charlize Theron’s Mad Max. Theron plays Furiosa, a woman who’s risking her life to save Immortan Joe’s harem girls. She hides them in a rig and then, during a routine trek, diverts from the route. Theron looks like the daughter of Sigourney Weaver’s Ellen Ripley. She is the human core of the film, although Theron, like everyone else, has little time to flesh out her character. When she leads the girls (joined by Max and another man played by Nicolas Hoult) to what she thinks is a green promised land, only to discover that it to has been encroached by drought, her despair is powerful.

I’ve never been a huge fan of Mad Max as a series, and I’m certainly not a huge fan of the bigness of movies like this. But despite this, I recommend Fury Road (with some reservations) because it’s a smart movie, a generally well-crafted movie, and because it gives its characters ambiguity and integrity and vitality. (One particularly strong example: Nicholas Hoult’s character, a demonic War Boy who turns good, perhaps because he has no choice.) There are so many interesting characters in this movie that I wish I could have gotten to know better. They are not the inane characters we usually get in summer movies. It was a weird and unexpected pleasure to have spent a couple hours with them. 

May 18, 2015

Ex Machina

Alex Garland’s directing debut, Ex Machina, is an immersive experience. It’s set in the sleek, up-to-date-with-a-vengeance compound of an eccentric young tech tycoon named Nathan Bateman. Nathan is the creator of the world’s most popular search engine (Bluebook, or, by very little twist of the imagination, Google); he’s played by Oscar Isaac. Nathan is working on something new and exciting: a sentient robot named Ava (Alicia Vikander), and he has picked one of the grunts from his company, a coder named Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) to test Ava's abilities in a series of sessions. 

Ex Machina is incredibly well-crafted. The set design is elegant yet spare, and sinister in its minimalism because it has the air of futurism, like something from a Stanley Kubrick film. When Caleb wanders through the seemingly endless corridors of Nathan's home-cum-research bunker, it’s like he’s been invited into Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory, where any minute a strange creature may emerge, totally at home with the inner-workings of the facility. The entire place is under surveillance and engineered with sophisticated security devices; and in order to travel from room to room, you need a specialized card that knows which rooms you can and cannot enter.

The conversations between Caleb and Ava are also well-dramatized. Garland has figured out how to make us gradually accept the humanity of an automaton, and even as you can hear the film’s frightening warning—that the actualization and immersion of AI into our culture is an inevitability with potentially startling consequences—you can find yourself bowled over, mesmerized, by the sheer achievement, the amazing simulation of humanity that Ava represents.

Garland also keeps the true intentions of his characters ambiguous. We never know if Nathan is pulling one over on Caleb or not, and as the film develops (and this is pretty evident in the film’s trailer), the proceedings become increasingly tense and dark. The film is predictably suspicious of young techie millionaires. Nathan's isolationism seems like a pretty good sign that he’s gone off the deep end: an arrogant, dangerous concoction of his own power, wealth, and genius. Caleb gushes at the beginning of the film that Nathan's achievement is the sign of gods at work, and Nathan later twists these words: “You said I was a god.” This is a luxury that the very wealthy can afford.

Unfortunately, Ex Machina beats to a rhythm of dread which never quite crescendos the way you want it to. The final revelations of the plot are satisfying thematically but cruel and in some sense deeply unsatisfying. Even though everything that happens feels well-thought-out and credible (I’m trying very hard to dance around spoilers for those of you who have not seen it yet), I was mad at the movie when it was all over. And yet, I believe Garland has hit on something very unnervingly honest about our obsession with machines and how easily we trust them to do what we tell them to do, how vulnerable we are to their corruption or malfunction. Even something as slight as a power failure becomes a serious problem at Nathan’s compound, because when the power fails, all the doors are sealed, trapping a person inside. 

But Ex Machina succeeds overall because it is an elegant, deliberately paced thriller and we so seldom get movies like this anymore. Perhaps it could have been a little more exciting, but I think viewers with patience will enjoy the totally immersive experience that Alex Garland has crafted. The actors of course help shape the drama, and Oscar Isaac is the most magnetic of the three. He has a terrific knack for balancing the playful and the devious, keeping us always on alert, but never sure, about what he may or may not being up to. As Ava, Alicia Vikander is quiet, graceful, pensive. I'm not sure what I would expect from a performance for this type of character, but Vikander's certainly works and adds its own level of depth--and ambiguity--to the dramatics. Gleeson, as Caleb, works too. He's got the right blend of nerdy tech kid in hoodie and competent, resourceful hero/romantic, one who may be falling in love with a robot.  

Ex Machina actually feels just a little connected to, of all things, Halloween III: Season of the Witch, the one that wasn’t about Michael Myers, but instead showed us a mad Irish toymaker who had murderous robots running his factory. And here, we may as well throw Westworld and The Stepford Wives into the conversation. There's a scene later in the film of a robot stabbing a human, and my mind immediately returned to Stacey Nelkin--whose character has been turned into a robot, or maybe was a robot all along--attacking Tom Atkins in the car at the end of Halloween III. As sophisticated as Ex Machina is on the surface, it espouses the same fundamental distrust of technology which all of these previous films dramatized and turned into extremely literal horror pieces. Ex Machina manages more subtlety, more panache, and yet it's not really any more sophisticated essentially. It ultimately resorts to the admonition, “The robots will kill us all.” 

May 14, 2015

The Water Diviner

There is scenic beauty to spare in Russell Crowe’s flawed but touching The Water Diviner. The film—apparently based on fact, however loosely—traces the journey of an Australian farmer named Joshua Connor in 1919 to Gallipoli. Connor is trying to recover the bodies of his three sons, all of whom were part of ANZAC (Australian and New Zealand Army Corps) and were (to the best of his knowledge) killed together in battle (during the 1915 Gallipoli campaign which left thousands of troops dead on both sides). Crowe also directed the film, with a surprisingly subtle hand, particularly in crafting battle scenes and in showcasing the landscape that situates his story, be it the austere terrain of the Australian desert or the sumptuous blues and greens of the Mediterranean and Turkey. Crowe’s light touch doesn’t always work for the film: there are moments when it feels lacking in emotional weight, despite the compelling elements of the story which would seem to defer such weight almost as a matter of course.

My knowledge of World War I is fairly limited, and my knowledge of the skirmish at Gallipoli and its aftermath even more so. But even I felt more than a little skeptical about some of the cultural and political aspects of The Water Diviner. Somehow, Crowe’s film feels too blissfully easy in its understanding of cultural divides. Crowe’s good-natured, politically neutral farmer, Joshua Connor, begins his search in Istanbul, and when he arrives, an eager young boy nabs his luggage and lures him to the out-of-the-way hotel run by his widowed mother Ayshe (played by Olga Kurylenko). Naturally, she’s put off by Joshua Connor, since he represents the Anglo enemies who slaughtered so many of her own people (including her husband, although she refuses to admit his death because it might obligate her to marry his brother, a calculating, somewhat sleazy man). Nevertheless, a fragile kinship—and romance—is obviously in the works. And even though the film ultimately leaves this development open to interpretation, its inclusion feels more than a bit precious, like a Hallmark movie found its way into an otherwise tough-minded film about the tragedy of war.

I appreciate that The Water Diviner is ultimately proclaiming a message of togetherness. The characters in this film have felt the torrent of war in the most direct and painful ways imaginable. But a movie that so conveniently unites two warring cultures by contriving a romance between two people from those cultures, feels a bit calculated, like finely processed treacly Hollywood goo. It goes down so easy. But there’s also a romanticized portrait of the Turks which left me feeling skeptical about the film’s historical insight.

And yet, this movie is likable and effective and refreshingly subtle in so many ways. Crowe’s depiction of conflict is one of the most understated we’ve seen in Western movies of the last decade. We see flashes of the battle Connor’s sons fought in Gallipoli, all of them technically pretty dazzling and viewer-friendly. We can tell what is happening in the action, and the sounds of the guns feel loud in that antiquated way, not like computerized modern recreations. The battles are also not drawn out: they’re more like flecks of memory, only Connor doesn’t remember them; he’s imagining them, or we’re getting them as a kind of dreamlike retroactive vision. They are well-staged, efficient, powerful, and haunting.

And to his credit, Russell Crowe doesn’t try to milk the audience or give himself blustering actor-y moments. His character—obviously grief-stricken not just by the loss of all three of his sons but the recent suicide of his wife—is broken. He’s been stripped of the things that we’ve been told are being protected by aggressive military force. The Great War for him isn’t a roar of victory; it’s a wail of personal loss. In one of the most heartbreaking moments of the film, we see Joshua Connor’s sons, all of them apparently mortally wounded, one in particular issuing a guttural moan that goes on for hours; his brother, the least wounded of the three (the third is already dead) cries out, knowing he can do nothing to save his brothers or himself, and feeling the weight of this great tragedy in a very literal sense as he lies under the broken bodies of his brothers.

That’s a powerful image. There are many of them in The Water Diviner. And yet, these images are marred somewhat by the film’s cheap satisfaction. Perhaps this is a result of what feels like rushed storytelling. I’ve never been one to complain about a movie being too short, but are moments in The Water Diviner that feel clumsily staged as though the filmmakers were in a hurry and didn’t have the finesse to dramatize what they wanted in the right way. This is surely—at least in part—the mark of a first-time director. Crowe makes up for these oversights by his willingness to soak in the surroundings of the many places Connor travels.

And even though the film feels at times like a cultural field trip conducted by an overly optimistic and more than slightly misinformed guide, its intentions are admirable. To his credit, Crowe does make an effort to depict the complexities at work between the two cultures at the heart of the film: the Anglos and the Ottomans. Connor is aided more than once by a Turkish military officer (Yilmaz Erdogan)—who’s been enlisted by Australian military officials to help them recover their dead soldiers, because he’s familiar with the landscape and the trajectory of the battles. But this is part of the problem: the film feels naïve in its forced togetherness. The actors lend some credibility to problematically noble intentions. And I can’t overstate my gratitude for a movie about war that makes an effort to be subtle and thoughtful and relatively light on explosions (for a summer movie).

With Jai Courtney, Ryan Corr, Dylan Georgiades, Jacqueline McKenzie, James Fraser, and Ben O’Toole. 

May 13, 2015

Hot Pursuit

A lousy Rotten Tomatoes score should not keep us from seeing Hot Pursuit. Its dismal 5% rating on the Tomatometer once again proves that consensus is not everything. Consensus certainly should never be the deciding factor in how we experience a movie, because lots of people can be wrong. Hot Pursuit may be flawed, but it is comedy dynamite that gets the “buddy movie” right and provides plumb roles for its two stars, Reese Witherspoon and Sofía Vergara. The film isn’t perfect structurally, but it’s bursting with well-crafted scenes that build on the relationship between the two leads, it’s finely tuned and generous and light and often laugh-out-loud funny.

Reese Witherspoon conjures up memories of Holly Hunter’s plucky police woman in Raising Arizona, as well as Amy Poehler’s indefatigable Leslie Knope in Parks and Recreation. Witherspoon plays Officer Rose Cooper, an exceedingly literal-minded, by-the-book San Antonio cop with a Texas twang. Cooper has memorized all the police codes and spouts them out like a mantra when she’s stressed; she can recite the law and the statutes from memory; her uniform is impeccably neat and shiny. But no one respects her, because she cares too much.

It is this intense, totally authentic dedication to her job and the overflow of passion she has for it which bind her to Leslie Knope from Parks and Rec. The difference between them is that Leslie Knope has a team of supporters balancing her bubbly, singular insanity, while Officer Cooper is basically a loner, alienated from the rest of the world because of her intense personality. In the opening scene of the film, we see her chasing a fleeing man because he ran out on a date; she’s possibly the scariest thing an insecure heterosexual man will ever encounter: a confident woman with a gun and a badge.

However, Officer Cooper (or just, Cooper) really scares people off because she isn’t a smooth operator; she doesn’t know how to bullshit, and fluffy conversation—the stuff so many of us rely on in order to gradually get to know other people—is not her forte. She is too focused on tasks for small talk. When riding in the car with a big, tall U.S. marshal who tells her to try not to fall in love with him, she responds: “10-4. Oh. That was a joke, wasn’t it.”

Reese Witherspoon is an actress who has often played the dumb blond in lackluster Hollywood comedies; there’s nothing wrong with playing a dumb blond unless you get stuck in that role forever. Fortunately, Witherspoon has shown us a wider range of acting chops, and now she’s playing a more complex kind of comic character, one who is smart and good and honest but also kind of ridiculous and even annoying, and it’s a much more engaging, physical, and hilarious performance we get as a result. Witherspoon maintains the integrity of her character while happily letting herself look silly, sometimes being left out of a joke because she’s so serious, so tense, so committed to giving 150%.

The plot is standard Hollywood comedy formula: Officer Cooper is sent to escort jewel-encrusted Columbian diva Danielle Riva (Sofía Vergara), the wife of a drug lord, to Dallas so she can testify against the leader of a large drug cartel who is currently in jail. But things go wrong, as they tend to do in these movies, and Witherspoon and Vergara take it on the lam with both drug lords and police chasing after them.

Sofía Vergara’s performance is delicious. She sounds like a Columbian Fran Drescher (which may grate on some people’s nerves); she’s like a Redwood standing next to the petite Cooper, especially because she’s sporting a pair of wedges that are worth more than a suburban house. Vergara apes the stereotypes aimed at Hispanic women and rich women: she’s a tall, curvy, stylish, materialistic woman on the outside; but she’s also intuitive and smart, and uses the stereotypes to her advantage, maintaining a subtle control over the various insane situations the movie throws at her. Vergara is also impressively in command of herself as a physical performer. She doesn’t resort to klutziness for comedy, and she gets great mileage out of picking on poor, diminutive Reese Witherspoon. “Get down!” Cooper yells when they’re being shot at; “It is farther for me!” Mrs. Riva retorts.

The interplay between these two women is often delightful. The director, Anne Fletcher, takes time to fashion scenes so that the gags build on each other. In one scene, the ladies are trying on clothes at a gas station, and Vergara puts Witherspoon in a sexy red number that utterly clashes with her character. Officer Cooper groans, “I feel like the cheese fell off my cracker.” Despite the fact that the movie does not always hold up around them, these two actresses take command of the screen and make the movie work for them. I can forgive a lot for such terrific comic performances. I can only hope that this movie finds the audience it deserves.

With Matthew Del Negro, Michael Mosley, Robert Kazinsky, John Carroll Lynch, Richard T. Jones, and Jim Gaffigan (in a funny bit as a farmer). Written by David Feeney and John Quaintance.