Wednesday, June 10, 2015

THE ATOMO-VISION OF JOE DANTE



By the time I'd arrived in Los Angeles from Southern Oregon in 1987, I was already a card-carrying member of the Joe Dante Fan Club. (Well, I would have carried a card if I’d had one, and if there had actually been a Joe Dante Fan Club, but I didn’t because there wasn’t, but if there had been…) Of course I’d seen Gremlins several times, and though I enjoyed its parodic take on Spielberg-filtered horror and fairy tales, it wasn’t my favorite Dante picture. I remember catching Dante and makeup genius Rob Bottin on NBC’s Tomorrow show with Tom Snyder in 1981 promoting The Howling, their stylish and innovative take on werewolf mythology (and werewolf movies). Shortly thereafter saw the movie on a double bill with The Texas Chainsaw Massacre at a local drive-in on the edge of some very deep woods. It was the perfect setting for my first exposure to Dante’s satirically inventive, movie-maniacal sensibility, and I was hooked. Soon after I sought out his first movie, the delightfully inexpensive Hollywood Boulevard (1976), which he co-directed with Allan Arkush, and began to suspect I’d discovered a director whose perspective could reflect my own movie-riddled mania while leaving room for the sort of subtextual contours—political, emotional, sociological-- that, as the previous four years of my college life had encouraged me to see, could make the movies live and breathe on another level.


I loved all those movies, but it was Dante’s maligned, seemingly misunderstood Explorers (1985) that really got its hooks into me. In telling the story of three boys who start receiving mysterious messages, apparently from outer space, and build a spaceship out of an abandoned Tilt-a-Whirl car in order to find out who’s sending them, you could feel Dante wrestling with a life of movie-fed expectations, the beauty and silliness of childhood, the looming responsibilities of adulthood (where not much of that beauty and silliness seems to have survived) and the hope that it might somehow all add up to something more than random chaos and hopeful transmissions winking out in the twilight. The denouement of Explorers, an out-and-out rebuke to the quasi-religious hosannas paying customers had become accustomed to in the wake of Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E.T. The Extra-terrestrial, was taken by most audiences as a disappointment at best, a pointless betrayal at worst, and the movie never connected with the summer crowds for which it was marketed. But ultimately it doesn’t feel like a movie that should. It’s one of those movies about which I feel almost unreasonably protective, that feels as if it was made for me. And I know now there are a lot of us who feel that way.
 
Cut back to Los Angeles, 1987. My best friend and I came upon a notice in the newspaper that Joe Dante would be giving some sort of lecture at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences on the history and legends of horror and science fiction in Hollywood, and of course we had to go. I remember very little of the lecture itself other than it was engaging and full of clips Dante had brought along (perhaps from his personal collection), and that I had mustered up the courage to stand up and ask him a rather generic question about Explorers. And the only specific thing I remember about the appearance is something I’m likely to never forget. At one point Dante veered away from his notes, took a breath and proclaimed that, as great as it had been to see some of the wonderful moments he’d gathered for the presentation on the giant screen of the Academy’s theater, it would be a real shame not to take full advantage of the opportunity to put the screen to really good use. At that point the lights went down and, for no other reason than that he could and that he wanted to see it himself, the director unveiled the ending of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly in all of its widescreen glory. This was the first time I’d ever seen Leone’s masterpiece, one of my favorite movies, on any screen other than my TV, and here it was in this majestic setting, just because. Joe Dante was now no longer simply a director whose films I really appreciated. He was now something akin to a personal hero.


By the time I was a kid reading Famous Monsters of Filmland religiously, Dante, not much older than me, was already writing reviews for the revered Castle of Frankenstein magazine and was on his way to a filmmaking career that many dreamed/hoped might also be in waiting for those of us who shared his obsessions. Dante has always seemed like one of us (one of us!), an original talent simpatico to the monster legends emanating from the back lots of Universal Studios and every other budget-deprived genre production facility with only energy and inspiration, and precious little money to spare. And this week, in celebration of the razor-sharp, hyperkinetic cinematic hall-of-mirrors that is the oeuvre of this wonderful filmmaker, the American Cinematheque in Los Angeles running a four-day tribute called The Atomo-Vision of Joe Dante, each night hosted by Dante himself, which will be a rare and welcome opportunity to see some of his peak achievements on the big screen.



The festival opens up tonight with a dream double bill of Gremlins (1984) and its certifiably insane sequel, the Godfather II of all sci-fi/horror/comedy mashups, Gremlins 2: The New Batch (1990).



Then tomorrow night, the Cinematheque presents an advance screening of Dante’s newest movie, the zombie-romantic comedy hybrid (or zom-com, for those of you who like rhymes) Burying the Ex, which stars Anton Yelchin (Star Trek: Into Darkness, Only Lovers Left Alive) as a young dude with dating problems— after his overbearing type-A girlfriend (Ashley Greene) is killed by a bus, he starts dating a girl more suited to his temperament (Alexandra Daddario), only to find out that his flattened ex isn’t about to let a little thing like being dead excuse him from his previous proclamations of eternal devotion. Dante will introduce this screening as well, and the movie will be followed by a Q&A with Dante, Yelchin and Daddario.
 
 Friday night brings Dante’s hilarious horror comedy The 'burbs (1989) back to the big screen, in which restless vacationer Tom Hanks becomes increasingly, irrationally obsessed with what’s going on in his mysterious neighbors’ basement. The ‘burbs is paired with Matinee (1993), a brilliant homage to the B-movie huckster spirit of showmen like William Castle. Dante’s Castle is Lawrence Woolsley (John Goodman), who brings his newest Atomo-Vision classic Mant (Half man! Half ant! All terror!”) to a Key West, Florida promotional screening during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. It’s hard to imagine a more lovingly detailed tribute to the spirit and substance of the movies, and the era, which shaped the filmmaker he would one day become, and as such Matinee ranks with Explorers among Dante’s most personal work.
 
Speaking of which, Explorers (1985) screens Sunday night alongside Innerspace (1987), Dante’s delightful, spectacular wrinkle on Fantastic Voyage, in which another sort of explorer, Lt. Tuck Pendelton (Dennis Quaid), volunteers to be shrunk down to microscopic size as part of a scientific experiment, only to be accidentally injected into the body of a hapless grocery clerk (Martin Short). It’s been said a lot, but this time hilarity does, in fact, ensue-- it's probably Short's finest hour in the movies.

These double bills are hard to argue with as prime samples of this director’s very personal movie madness-- a specifically analog and encyclopedic dedication to the art and craft of film and its history born of an age where true movie love had to be sought out on late show spelunking expeditions and dangerous trips to downtown grindhouses. The Atomo-Vision-fueled cinema of Joe Dante is a treasure chest full of unique pop pleasures— I’ll be at the Egyptian Thursday and Friday, and maybe even Sunday too, to dig in along with my daughter, who under her dad’s caring tutelage has learned to love Joe Dante’s movies almost as much as he does. I hope you can be there this weekend to revel in them with us.

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For further reading on Joe Dante, here are links to interviews I conducted with the director, one from 2008 and one from 2009 as well as to my eyewitness account of being in the audience for a rare screening of The Movie Orgy!
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Wednesday, June 03, 2015

THE GIFT OF SATYAJIT RAY'S APU TRILOGY


UPDATE: 6/4/15

 
I really hope you were somewhere near a theater this month that was showing the 4K restoration of Satyajit Ray’s peerlessly lovely APU TRILOGY, comprised of Pather Panchali (1955), Aparajito (1957) and The World of Apu (1959). The last time I saw these movies was about 35 years ago, on rickety, well-worn 16mm—seeing them again, having grown-up in the manner (if not the circumstances) of Apu in the interim, makes me feel like I was seeing these luminous treasures for the first time. Ray’s remarkable achievement is in telling the story of Apu, who begins life well after the first film has gotten under way, completely absent any pandering sentiment, through the prism of a world represented for its beauty as well as its unforgiving harshness and indifference, and then expanding the vision of the world’s possibilities so we might understand them in the way Apu does, each tiny revelation absorbed or ignored organically, without the telltale signposts of assigned significance. For every moment of joy along the way, there is also the pain of loss and the struggle of everyday existence, of survival, all of which is rendered with such observational confidence, such almost offhanded grace, that the movies feel more lived in than simply seen.
If you missed the theatrical release (and at this writing they have exactly one day left of their Los Angeles engagement), the upcoming Criterion Collection release becomes even more urgent. Criterion commissioned the salvation of Ray’s films, the negatives of which had been in dire shape for years and nearly lost in a London fire in 1993, with the help of L’Immagine Ritrovata, a Bolognese restoration facility, and their painstaking work was worth every second, every penny. Stephanie Zacharek wrote about the new opportunity to experience Ray’s masterworks last May, and she does a beautiful job of Illuminating the connection of Ray’s work to the emotional and spiritual experience of everyday life. Read her piece and be inspired to seek out THE APU TRILOGY when it bows on Blu-ray later this year.

UPDATE: Looks like Ray's APU TRILOGY will have an extended life in Los Angeles after all. It holds over starting today at both the Landmark Theater in West Los Angeles and the Laemmle Playhouse 7 in Pasadena. The trilogy will continue to make its way across the country through September. For a full listing of cities and theaters that will be playing the films over the course of the summer, click on the official Janus Films APU TRILOGY Web site.
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Monday, June 01, 2015

THE 2015 WHITE ELEPHANT BLOGATHON: CHARLES BURNETT'S THE GLASS SHIELD



In Charles Burnett’s The Glass Shield (1995), a drama of corruption, racism and sexism within the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department which was based on a true story, violence and racial tension is set at a constant simmer from the start—upon arriving for his first day on the job, rookie cop J.J. Johnson (Michael Boatman), apparently the station’s first and only African-American officer, is assumed by one of the department vets to be a trustee rather than an employee, a mistake Johnson takes in stride as he flashes his badge and makes his way in. Once inside, it’s certainly clear enough to the viewer, if not Johnson, what he’s up against. The office is overwhelmed with big, tough, power-tripping Caucasians, many of whom look like out-of-work porn stars or Tom Selleck wannabes, or both, tossing casual racism about like a football at a tailgater, all overseen by a rogue’s gallery of familiar character actors (when Michael Ironside shows up as a detective, you know it’s not going to go well for Johnson) and the station commander (Richard Anderson), whose resemblance to ex-L.A. police chief Daryl Gates isn’t likely a coincidence.
Johnson believes he can fit in, that there is a place for him among the ranks, and he believes in the system as it applies both to him as an upcoming peace officer and those he is assigned to protect and serve. But soon, in order to become one of the boys, Johnson participates in what he perceives as a routine traffic stop which instead turns out to be a classic case of racial profiling. The driver, Teddy Wood (Ice Cube), gets hauled in on a concealed weapons charge, and the underpinnings of Johnson’s faith begin to crumble. By the time the case goes to trial, Johnson has lied about the circumstances to protect the arresting officer (Don Harvey), and Wood has been plugged into the patsy role in a murder case by a couple of sleazy detectives (M. Emmett Walsh and, yes, Ironside) looking to disguise a trail of corruption that leads much further than the sheriff’s station. He ends up forming an alliance with another outsider, a female deputy (Lori Petty) who has been on the receiving end of another sort of harassment, and the two of them go about discovering just how in over their heads they really are when it comes to finding justice from within.
Its anger having been informed both by the outrage and the aftermath of the Rodney King case in 1992 and the O.J. Simpson trial, which would come to its controversial conclusion a few months after its release, it seems reasonable to presume that, as much as the world hasn’t changed in 20 years, The Glass Shield might be even more potent than it turns out to be. And though that constant simmer of racial tension remains admirably restrained throughout—the movie shines when compared its 2004 corollary, Crash, whose stew of outrage was overheated from frame one— there’s a strangely muted quality about The Glass Shield, almost as if we were seeing the events of the film being played out as a case study under glass. (One could assume the movie occurs in the “present day,” but even in 1995 the notion of an all-white sheriff’s station being forced to accept a black man into their fraternity seemed strangely dated.)
We’re not in David Ayer territory here—the camera setups are reserved, conservative, and Burnett’s screenplay is rather astonishingly profanity-free. The word “nigger” is never spoken, but its unexpected appearance in writing lends the movie a necessary edge of horror and sets the rest of Burnett’s approach apart as comparatively reserved, even tepid. Even so, you can feel the tension between the warmly observational writer-director of Killer of Sheep and To Sleep with Anger and the restrictions he’s placed on himself in fashioning a more concisely told drama, one that must, to a certain degree, play by genre rules rather than searching for vital life in the margins.
 
Or perhaps the more accurate word might be melodrama. For all of its fact-based foundations, The Glass Shield has a distinctly prescribed quality to it, which is rooted in its almost complete refusal of the sort of complexity, however fictionalized, that might have lent the movie a desperately needed air of immediacy. The movie hinges on Boatman’s desire for acceptance and willingness to overlook a lot of specious behavior in order to find it, but in reaction to Burnett’s shade-free portrayal of white villainy Boatman’s rookie comes off as curiously naïve. Had Boatman been more convincingly seduced by the possibilities of inclusion, if he had been allowed a friendship among the station establishment that might have deepened his own sense of personal conflict, the movie’s didactic strategy might seem a little less hermetically sealed.

As is, The Glass Shield, even as volatile as its subject matter is, carries a patina of Afterschool Special obviousness about it—it’s an absorbing movie which hardly ever strays into trouble areas for which it doesn’t already have a stinger of pointed dialogue at the ready, so ready that even Spike Lee might blush a little upon hearing them. (Few movies could fully recover from its hero intoning, “Like the song says, my skin is my sin,” or a peace officer finally braying his true colors-- “Let the professionals police this jungle!”) There are no earthshaking surprises here—corruption is exposed, justice is served, including the poetic kind-- a title card tells us that Anderson’s lordly, condescending Commander Massey retired from the force unindicted and opened a one-hour photo shop which was robbed twice during its first year of operation. We’re left with the feeling that, the small victories depicted here notwithstanding, professional inroads will be made but to a great degree the putrid business of racism will continue as usual. (Twenty years after the release of The Glass Shield, the fates of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garber and countless others have done little to assuage that uneasy conclusion.)

Burnett is too much of a realist to spare his audience the sight of Johnson having to face up to the consequences of his own role in the Teddy Wood injustice, but the moment is undercut by Boatman’s relative callowness in the part. At one point a character remarks on how Johnson's time in the sheriff’s department has hardened him, made him unrecognizable, and the viewer has to forgive him/herself for thinking that the actor looks as soft as ever. Boatman is an easy, welcoming presence and he plays along, but the deeper reserves, if they exist, go untapped, which in an odd way makes him the perfect lead for Burnett’s righteously fueled but tempered and dramatically incurious approach. The Glass Shield is by no means a cynical movie, and in some ways it’s probably a necessary one, but it lacks the investigative punch and complexity to be an important one.

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This review is my contribution to the White Elephant Blogathon, hosted by Philip Tatler at his blog Diary of a Country Pickpocket. As Philip explains, “film bloggers the world over have submitted their favorite (or, if they're particularly sinister, least favorite) film oddities to me. Those films have gone into a hat and been randomly assigned back to the members of the film blogletariat.Philip has an ever-increasing list of all the writing that makes up this year’s edition, and I’m excited that two of my favorite film writers are taking on suggestions submitted by me: Glenn Kenny dives into Ken Russell’s Lisztomania, and Roderick Heath answers the question “What ever happened to Bertrand Blier with his essay on the director’s 2005 How Much Do You Love Me? Check out the full list of contributions, which will get longer as the day progresses, at Diary of a Country Pickpocket.
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Thursday, May 28, 2015

ALL-NEW FEAR OF THE VELVET CURTAIN: HAPPY BIRTHDAY, PETER, CHRIS & VINCENT!

 

It's hard to believe that Vincent Price, Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee were all born during the last week of May, in 1911, 1913 and 1922, respectively, but that's some sort of supernova aligning of stars that has to be pretty unique in the annals of movie history. (And maybe not-- I'll confess I haven't gone through the books completely and confirmed that no one movie genre has ever seen such a concentration of significant births in one week. But I'd be willing to bet one or Dr. Phibes's fake ears that this sort of occurrence is pretty unique.)

So please join me at Trailers from Hell today for a "very special" celebration of the momentous arrivals and even more momentous careers of these three titans of cinematic terror. We're saying "Happy birthday!" to Peter, Vincent and Chris on a Throwback Thursday edition of Fear of the Velvet Curtain-- get there quick, because that cake and ice cream isn't likely to last.


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Friday, May 22, 2015

MAD MAX BEYOND FURIOUS


 
You can practically feel the whole drive-in history of revenge-oriented biker pictures come roaring up from behind and crashing through the beginning of George Miller’s 1980 original Mad Max, informing the movie’s every lunatic move and guiding it as it charts a change in trajectory for the course of business-as-usual action filmmaking to come. Even the American International Pictures logo that accompanied the movie’s American release, which was initially shown in a dubbed version populated by American actors, lent a sense of connection to movies like The Wild Angels (1966), The Born Losers (1967), Hells Angels on Wheels (1968), The Cycle Savages (1969) and Chrome and Hot Leather (1971), many of which had been staples on the American International menu.  (AIP’s The Born Losers gave birth to its own mythology, introducing audiences to actor Tom Laughlin and a character, Billy Jack, whose next movie appearance would set him on a different sort of vengeance trail.)
 
Mad Max feels out-of-control dangerous right from the beginning, its high-powered cars thundering across a bleak, but still recognizable landscape on a high-octane trip to oblivion. (The complete societal collapse which would characterize the subsequent Mad Max films is here still only a work in progress.) Miller sets the movie’s high-speed action low on the highway—the threat of road burn seems constant-- and so thoroughly redefines the concept of that staple of ‘70s action filmmaking, the car chase, and the level of stunt work required to realize his anarchic, yet graphically elegant vision, that there could be no looking back, only constant forward motion.
For me, there may still be no single moment in Miller’s action portfolio to match the hair-raising sight in the 1980 film of the Night Rider’s car making an evasive move to avoid a wrecked truck and skipping sideways down the road (along a slightly compressed focal plane) before crashing in a ball of flame into another pile of cars. Miller’s signature image, that of a pair of bloodshot eyes opening wide in horror and intercut with the moment of impact, gets its grand, unforgettable introduction in this sequence.
Mad Max is, of course, Max Rockatansky (Mel Gibson), a traffic cop charged with maintaining the last vestiges of law and order in this increasingly shattered world, who will lose everything—wife, child, sanity— to an even madder band of punk bikers, led by the Toecutter (Hugh Keays-Byrne), before the first picture is over. Mad Max’s final image, that of a deadened Max speeding down a seemingly endless night-shrouded road, leads straight into The Road Warrior’s dried-up, post-gas wars organizational breakdown, where paradigms of societal cooperation have disappeared in a desperate scramble for enough juice to keep the throttle wide open.  

 
Miller’s 1982 sequel, known in Australia simply as Mad Max 2, sets the pattern of Max as a wanderer and reluctant savior pressed into the service of a cause that is not his own—he only wants to scavenge for “guzzoline” and keep moving fast enough to keep his demons from catching up—that would become the series template to date. The landscape in The Road Warrior is even more barren, the mad punks now even more numerous, more scurrilous, motoring about in a fleet of vehicles seemingly cobbled together and modified from the world’s junkyard of mismatched spare parts. They’re led by the likes of the shrieking, Mohawk-capped Wez (Vernon Wells) and the unforgettable Humungus (Kjell Nilsson), with his strangely Nordic vocal stylings and the throbbing, mutated skull at all times covered by a goalie’s mask. (Jason Voorhees would popularize the look later that same summer in Friday the 13th Part III, but Miller and the Humungus got there first.)
 
The nomadic band of survivors with whom Max hooks up may be considerably less individually fascinating than their villainous counterparts (some things never change, even after civilization crumbles). Even so, the company of good guys include Bruce Spence’s vividly comic Gyro Captain (“Remember lingerie?”); a mechanic (Steve J. Spears) with useless legs who is hoisted about, like Peter O’Toole’s Eli Cross, on a crane; a warrior (Virginia Hey) who resembles Jennifer O’Neill in extreme survival mode; and the unforgettable Feral Kid (Emil Minty), who seems at times only one or two steps past Land of the Lost’s Chaka on the evolutionary timetable.
Miller doesn’t tip his hand until the end, after he’s finished his sequel’s mission of upping the ante on Mad Max’s insane vehicular propulsion with a climactic truck-car chase that would be the gold standard for years to come, but the saddened, articulate narration with which The Road Warrior begins (“My life fades. The vision dims. All that remains are memories…”) and ends (“As for me, I grew to manhood…”), turns out not to be the words of an older Max. That narration turns out to belong to the Kid, spoken from a time long after the movie’s story, and the personage of Max himself, has faded into the past and become myth. It’s just the right touch to send Max off into another endless night, its dark skies choked with burning rubber and exhaust fumes, a weary, burnt-out hero relieved to be alone yet again.
 
 
Unfortunately, he doesn’t stay alone for long. The opening of Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (1985) finds Max wandering yet again, some years after the events depicted in the previous films. But quite unlike Mad Max and The Road Warrior, this time our hero doesn’t burst into the frame through the air-gulping carburetor chambers of a nitro-fitted V8 Interceptor. Rather tellingly, he’s first seen rolling across the endless, blighted landscape sitting in a crippled vehicle being pulled by a team of camels. Then he’s set upon by an airborne Bruce Spence (not playing the Gyro Captain this time—he’s barely playing any character this time) who separates Max from his carriage, thus forcing him to trudge into a strange boondock city called Bartertown on foot. It isn’t long before Max is co-opted into the town’s strange slave society, where brutal one-on-one fights are staged for the amusement of the citizenry, of course, but even more so for that of Bartertown’s evil overseer, the Amazonian wonder known as Auntie Entity. (Auntie Entity is played by Tina Turner, who should have dropped the mic after charring the screen as the Acid Queen in Ken Russell’s Tommy—there’s just no topping that cameo.)
There are several darkly humorous, designed-to-be-quoted lines in the Bartertown section of MMBT (“Ladies and gentlemen, it’s… dyin’… time!”), but everything leading up to the fight sequence feels arbitrary, overstuffed and indifferent, and so does the fight itself, as it turns out. The danger beneath the Thunderdome feels too safe, too prescribed, and nearly inert— now there’s a word fans of the previous two chapters would hope never could be used in describing a Mad Max movie. And it doesn’t help that the outrageous, occasionally lyrical bombast of Brian May’s scores, which lent the first two films a patina of Wagnerian tragedy, has here been replaced by the nondescript orchestral ornamentation provided by Maurice Jarre. (Turner’s pop hit “We Don’t Need Another Hero,” heard over the end credits, is the movie’s more memorable musical contribution—it may be the best thing about the movie, period.)
 
The metaphorical wheel-spinning continues when Max, having emerged victorious from the Thunderdome’s two-men-enter, one-man-emerges scenario, is banished from Bartertown and left for dead in the desert. This being a sequel with seemingly at least one eye on the looming shadow of Steven Spielberg, Max is rescued by a group of lost children, survivors of an air crash who think he’s the savior prophesized in their favored myth of a downed pilot, Captain Walker, who will someday return and lead them out of desolation. At this point, one can actually feel the movie creaking under the weight of too much applied warrior hero mythology. The second half is overpopulated by these charmless, uninteresting kids and Max’s halfhearted attempts to get them to understand that he’s not who they think he is, with Miller himself seeming all too willing to indulge the logy import of the Max mythology.
The demands of the plot find Max and kids breaking back into Bartertown to perform a rescue and hotfooting it out of town on some sort of train truck, pursued by Auntie Entity and her minions in another set of underimagined vehicles which look for all the dystopian world like mutated golf carts. And it’s here you may connect the movie’s general malaise and lack of narrative energy to the fact that it’s been an hour and 20 minutes before anyone in MMBT even fires up an engine. Eighty minutes without any car action. In a Mad Max movie. Even the vehicle used by Max and company in their escape is a disappointment—they hightail it aboard a modified train engine which rides a quite finite set of rails. Incredibly, the forward motion that all but defines the force of Miller’s vision is largely absent in this movie, and what there is remains restricted to a simple line—no side trips, straight ahead and, despite the presence of those pursuit vehicles, no real chaser.
This climactic rundown here seems as perfunctory and prescribed as everything else, and by the end it’s not just Max who seems exhausted—the entire series seems to have limped to a dead end. And a 30-year change of pace for George Miller, which included the production of three great movies made for children that couldn’t have been less post-apocalyptic—the Oscar-winning Happy Feet, the Oscar-nominated Babe and its brilliant sequel Babe: Pig in the City-- seemed to confirm that the saga of Mad Max would, in fact, be left alone to limp to an unsatisfying conclusion.
But now, after about 15 years of trying to make it happen, George Miller, the movies’ great, now-70-year-old punk of the pop epic apocalypse, has finally returned with a new Max Rockatansky and a renewed sense of urgency. His new movie, Mad Max: Fury Road seems like an epic summing up of everything that has ever compelled Miller to put images on film, and the use of similar words in their titles will serve to remind viewers, if they could possibly forget, which summer action spectacular truly embodies the furious. Essentially one long, extended chase, Fury Road is so dynamically, startlingly choreographed that you begin to feel as though Miller himself is possessed by the glorious promise of unchecked propulsion, directing his picture almost as penance for, and an exorcism of the inertia that plagued MMBT.
Mel Gibson has been replaced as Max by Tom Hardy (Locke, The Dark Knight Rises), and—no slight on Gibson, who always carried Max’s cynicism with the sort of gravitas from which one could hardly look away-- the new casting registers like an upgrade right out of the box. Hardy’s opening narration seems similar to that which opened The Road Warrior, but this time the speaker’s identity is no mystery, cuing us not toward any mythopoetic perspective on Max but instead offering a clue to the identity of the voices bashing around in his head. “I am haunted by those I could not protect,” he intones, “running from the living and the dead,” those dead embodied by the vision of a pleading pre-teen girl who addresses him as “Dad” and whose continual appearances undermine what’s left of his sanity, which isn't much.  (Fans of the series will likely remember that the child lost by Max in the first film was a toddler and a boy.)
 
Max is soon captured and enslaved by one Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne, once the Toecutter), a psychotic dictator irradiated and ravaged by disease who presides from behind a sardonic metal rictus over the Citadel, a literal oasis in the desert where greenery is cultivated and an entire people remains subject to Joe’s control over a deep, apparently endless supply of water, which he doles out on occasion in order to keep the rabble in line. This aspect of Fury Road is likely to resonate with an extra frisson for the drought-stricken citizenry of California and the rest of the Southwest—“Do not become addicted to water,” Joe offers with a patriarchal  sneer as the thirsty gather beneath him, awaiting their periodic drenching. “It will take hold of you, and you will resent its absence.” (In the years since the gas wars that crippled society just before the time of The Road Warrior, we’re informed that the population has also set against itself in an attempt to secure possession of water rights as well. So we have that to look forward to.)
 
Joe also presides over a brood of female slaves who are literally milked and kept in perpetual pregnancy, the better to provide hopefully healthy, non-mutated, male offspring to perpetuate Immortan Joe’s lunatic rule. But not all females are exploited for procreational purposes. Joe’s right-hand woman (who just happens to be missing her own left arm) is Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron), a fierce warrior who is sent out on a mission to collect up a supply of gas and bullets which will keep the Citadel mobile and defended. But what Joe doesn’t know is that Furiosa has smuggled five of his most prized females, two of whom are pregnant, along with her— unbeknownst to anyone, they’re really headed for the “Green Place of Many Mothers,” a mysterious oasis of plenty where Furiosa was born. She intends to deliver the women to a new world where they can take up residence far away from the oppressive patriarchal rule of Joe and so many others like him.

 
As is so often the case, in movies as in life, the getting there turns out to be almost all the fun. Joe and his Warboys, mounted on a delirious assortment of surreally modified vehicles, each one seemingly more awesome than the last, give chase. (Here a special, awe-inspired salute must be reserved for the movie's production designer, Colin Gibson.) Max is literally mounted on the front of one pursuit vehicle, driven by a dying Warboy named Nux (Nicholas Hoult) who seeks a glorious death while siphoning off Max’s replenishing supply of plasma. (Nux refers to Max as his “blood bag.”) As critic David Edelstein observed in his splendid assessment of the movie for New York magazine, seeing Mad Max: Fury Road for the first time may involve a slight disorientation, a sensation that the movie has started mid-story, and it’s something of a marvel to realize how Miller and co-scenarists Brendan McCarthy and Nico Lathouris, dole out important character information in seemingly reverse order, setting up revelations instead of simple backstory. A second viewing certainly relieved me of the obligation to try and beat the clock of the movie’s relentless pace, figuring out relationships and situations on the fly, and also made clear that everything you need to know is just as likely reinforced by what Miller and his brilliant cameraman John Seale are showing as much as what the characters can tell. And there is a lot to process.
But part of the joy of experiencing this movie is recognizing the degree to which its chaos is precisely modulated, our eyes being offered exactly what we need to see. Yet the movie never plays like a control freak’s vacuum-packed vision. The action sequences are breathless and relentless, but somehow Fury Road never tires you out. Part of that may have something to do with never getting the sense that Miller, despite this being the fourth picture of the series, is repeating himself. He shows us some of the most insane action choreography ever committed to film, edited at a pace that is much more in keeping with up-to-the-minute action movie velocity, yet he never loses the audience in a clutter of cutting. The fighting, man on man, vehicle and vehicle, is all staged and assembled with intense graphic intelligence and awareness—one action leads logically to another, and we’re left to follow a line of visual thought rather than throw up our hands in frustration at not being able to sort out shards of edited flash meant to generate artificial excitement.
And occasionally, mid-chase, Miller pulls back to orient the pursuer and the pursued in a long shot stretching over miles of desert, doling out an amused god’s sense of geographical and spatial relationships, a gentle reminder that no moment of respite can ever last too long.
 
There are levels of wit to discover within the design of almost every shot of this picture too, and you may find yourself laughing a lot in between shallow, adrenaline-fueled breaths. Film buffs will delight in how nods to filmmakers as disparate as fellow Aussie Peter Weir and Andrei Tartovsky have been woven into the landscape of motion within Miller’s points of reference. In one of my favorite seemingly tossed-off moments, during the quiet aftermath of a raging sandstorm, a long shot of a desert mountain turns out not to be quite what we thought it was. During one extended sequence, the front end of Furiosa’s truck catches fire and she uses the cowcatcher attached to its nose to churn up a giant cloud of red earth to extinguish the flames, a move which is then followed by a quick shot of the carburetor sucking in a forceful gulp of air. And when Max is finally given a proper introduction to the female cargo on the truck, Miller stages them hosing themselves off in what might, in other circumstances, register as the world’s end of wet T-shirt contests. Max, however, is more practical— he keeps a shotgun pointed in their direction and douses himself with a mighty drink of water.
 
Hardy is terrific here, going toe to toe with our memories of Gibson’s sexy disaffectedness in a feat of pop culture approbation that will likely stand alongside Mads Mikkelsen’s hijacking of Hannibal Lecter from the Oscar-winning likes of Anthony Hopkins. He even benefits from Miller’s delayed gratification strategy of keeping Max behind a harness mask for the first half hour of the movie—you’ll want more of Hardy’s magnetism, and Miller assures that you’ll get it.
Actually, the movie is full of faces you want more of— Hoult and Keays-Byrne, of course, but also Zoe Kravitz, Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, Abbey Lee, Courtney Eaton and Riley Keough (Elvis Presley’s granddaughter) as Immortan Joe’s prized harem on the run, Nathan Jones as Joe’s overdeveloped son Rictus Erectus, John Helman as Slit, Nux’s rabid Warboy counterpoint, and Melissa Jaffer as the leader of the Vuvalini, a group of tough, weather-beaten old women who know the secret behind the Green Place of Many Mothers.
 
But as much as the movie is called Mad Max: Fury Road, it could just as easily be called Furiosa Road.  The beating heart of the movie is located within Charlize Theron’s angry, almost feral performance, and she holds the screen here in a way that she never has before. Her body language, her unwavering glare, the tension and wariness in her voice all contribute to Furiosa’s weary resolve—in this outrageously stylized role, she has never been more natural on screen, and certainly there has never been a character in this series so strong, so concisely delineated, one so capable of heroism and moral resolve, to provide a counter to Max’s haunted persona. Furiosa is the emotional nexus of the movie as well, and when her moment of devastation comes Miller and Seale honor her, and Theron, with the most memorable and moving of tableaux in a movie saturated with kinetic visual poetry.
Resistance going in to Mad Max: Fury Road is understandable—the movie has been showered with so much advance praise that it’s almost impossible not to feel like expectations have been unreasonably raised. And like Boyhood last year, the only reasonable response to the hyperbole is to remember that only time can reveal the enduring appeal and significance of any piece of art. Spending too much time debating whether or not Fury Road achieves instant masterpiece status is to risk missing what it has to offer in the here and now. But I would go so far as to agree with a friend of mine who felt, in his qualified admiration for Fury Road, that all other purveyors of modern action cinema should look at this thing and be embarrassed and ashamed.
 
In the here and now, Miller and company, as they did in 1980 with the original Mad Max, have once again raised the bar not only for the outrageousness of practical stunts, but also for how those stunts can be composed and arranged for maximum clarity and effectiveness and emotional resonance. In an age where computer-enhanced imagery (and there is some on display here) is the coin of the realm and editing has been reduced to slamming a succession of images together with little regard for what they all add up to, the relentless physicality of Mad Max: Fury Road is a particularly welcome tonic. While watching this amazing movie a second time last night and considering the prospects of every other action movie of the summer scheduled to follow in this one’s wake, I was reminded of the words of Bill Paxton’s panicked marine sergeant in Aliens, another big action movie from many summers ago: That’s it. Game over, man.
 
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Friday, May 15, 2015

WAKING LIFE: I'LL SEE YOU IN MY DREAMS



I’ve been trying to avoid reading too much about Mad Max: Fury Road in anticipation of seeing it for myself tomorrow night in what I suspect will be a perfect setting-- a drive-in. But refraining from indulging in the enthusiasm of writers like Sean Burns and David Edelstein, and more tempered takes from others like Michael Sragow and Alan Scherstuhl, until after I see the movie is something I could probably only manage for another 24 hours or so. Needless to say, I look forward to reading those pieces and joining in on the conversation after I finish my own journey tomorrow night. The 70% rating bestowed upon Pitch Perfect 2 doesn’t jibe with some of the more dumbfounded reviews I’ve come across this afternoon, so despite my crush on Rebel Wilson I feel safer taking a pass on this one than I might have otherwise.
One great alternative to both of those more heavily promoted movies is Brett Haley’s lovely and unexpected I’ll See You in My Dreams, which gives Blythe Danner the best role she’s ever had in a film, which she matches with probably her best performance. Dreams is one of those movies that, from a glance at the advertising, you probably think you’ve seen a thousand times (I know I did)—a heavily caricatured and overly sentimental romance for the Exotic Marigold crowd. But that preconception sells this nuanced, intelligent picture far short.

Danner plays Carol, a 20-year widow and former songstress who has settled into a comfortable but tentative life living off her husband’s life insurance. The movie begins when Carol loses yet another longtime companion (dog lovers should come prepared) and begins to feel more unmoored than ever. That’s when two men come into her life—she strikes up an unlikely friendship with her pool guy Lloyd (Martin Starr, who I barely recognized) and attracts the attention of a handsome stranger named Bill (Sam Elliot) who shares a name with her dead husband and lives in the retirement village where her Carol’s best pals (Rhea Perlman, Mary Kay Place and June Squibb) also reside.


Even having read a description of the setup you may have ideas about where I’ll See You in My Dreams is headed, but Haley, directing a script he co-wrote with Marc Basch, thankfully has other ideas. The scenario sidesteps just about every cliché of the senior romance/parent-child conflict drama with surprising grace, painting with subtle strokes a portrait of the way the world looks for those who are nearer to the finish line than their younger, more unsettled counterparts. Haley and Basch are both in their ‘30s, which makes I’ll See You in My Dreams what critic Stephanie Zacharek has described as a remarkable feat of sympathetic imagination, in addition to being an emotionally involving and beautifully crafted drama centered on two characters who belong well outside a movie studio’s most desirable demographic.

Danner brings a flinty, weary sensibility to Carol—she always seems to be sizing people and situations up, not to set up zinger after zinger but because she truly doesn’t know how she should proceed with the cards she’s been dealt. She can feel the seductive pull of isolation, and you can see her making a case for it, even when she’s pleasantly surprised by the developing relationship with Bill—the two match each other’s experience with a healthy dose of forthrightness about intentions and desires, and the enjoyment they take in each other’s company because of that forthrightness, which they likely don’t share with many others, is palpable. And Danner seizes the opportunity to engage us with Carol not through emotional histrionics, but with subtle glances and body language that suggest the memories of a happier life to which she’s having ever more difficulty keeping hold of, and the possibility of a new dimension of experience she might just be waking up to. It’s a lovely piece of acting, hopefully not too subtle to end up forgotten come awards season.

The movie is enjoyable too simply because of the company, other than Danner, we get to keep. Elliot is magnetic as usual— it’s a pleasure to see him having such an easy time with his costar. Perlman and Squibb veer as close to broad caricature as the movie ever gets, but though you think it may succumb to crass comedy in their scenes together, the movie manages to avoid too much of the obvious, even during a scene when the ladies break into Perlman’s stash of medical marijuana. And I can’t overstate how glad I always am to see Mary Kay Place, however small or less-small the role. I was almost as happy to see Max Gail pop up near the beginning as one of Carol’s suitors in an ill-fated speed-dating session, and disappointed that the movie has literally nothing else for him to do.


But beside the gift of Danner’s presence, the movie’s biggest pleasure is probably Martin Starr as Lloyd, whose tentative, platonic friendship with Carol may or may not carry undercurrents of infatuation (just another way Haley keeps us guessing). Lloyd is an aspiring songwriter with almost no ambition or confidence—he’s moved back to Los Angeles from Texas to live with his ailing mother, a situation he uses to excuse the shrugs he musters toward life—and Starr keeps us intrigued by never overselling Lloyd either as a social bumbler or a potential creep. He’s as grateful for his improbable connection with Carol as she is, and the little spark it strikes in him is delightful.

One of my favorite scenes in the movie is the one I dreaded most, when Carol and Lloyd hit a karaoke bar. Yet like so much else in I’ll See You in My Dreams it doesn’t take the painfully well-traveled path. Lloyd marvels at Carol’s sultry, slightly wobbly rendition of “Cry Me a River”(it’s when we first begin to suspect his fascination is deeper than he would ever intentionally let on), but Carol’s performance is tempered by Lloyd’s—he takes the stage first with an endearingly inept bash at “I Think We’re Alone Now,” which if anything is reminiscent of Britney Spears by way of Sueleen Gay, and it was in this moment I knew that Haley’s movie was going to be a whole lot better than the one I’d prejudged it to be.
If anything, Haley’s storytelling becomes even more confident as the movie goes along, and he guides us through the sorts of developments and possibly disabling narrative traps that have been mishandled so frequently since the cringe-inducing likes of Terms of Endearment. In fact, his touch is confident, so disarmingly light and marked with such ease that by the time I’ll See You in My Dreams arrives at its overwhelming and beautifully modulated final shot, the whole thing seems even more like a minor miracle. The fear is that young filmmakers not only won’t be interested in making modestly scaled movies like these, but that in the pursuit of ever-escalating spectacle they, and in fact an entire industry, will have forgotten how. Let the understated pleasures of I’ll See You in My Dreams be a lesson for them all.

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ALL-NEW FEAR OF THE VELVET CURTAIN: TALKIN' ABOUT EARL HOFERT

 

In anticipation of the great late-night sinkhole that's about to form come 12:37 a.m. Wednesday, May 20 (or, more precisely, Thursday, May 21) when David Letterman signs off of the Late Show for the last time, my Fear of the Velvet Curtain column this week is devoted to a personal remembrance of Dave's influence, a whole bunch of links to other, much better articles considering Dave's legacy, and my own little tribute to one aspect of his mighty career that has gone overlooked among all the pieces written so far:

"Okay, show of hands. How many of you saw Cabin Boy when it was released theatrically in January 1994? (Crickets…) I thought so.... There were about six people in the auditorium when my wife and I saw it on its very brief run at a theater in Westwood, and I remember stumbling out of the theater thinking that this movie could seriously be in the running for Strangest Movie Ever Made...About 10 minutes into the action, Elliot, still dressed in the powdered wig and lace jacket uniform of his exclusive fancy lad prep school, saunters through a coastal village looking for directions to the dock where he will board the Filthy Whore. And who should he encounter but a bum in a wool cap, smoking a cigar, who looks and sounds a lot like David Letterman. A quick check of the credits afterward reveals that the actor’s actual name is Earl Hofert… but I’d almost swear…"

Check in behind the velvet curtain this week and find out What We Talk About When We Talk About Earl Hofert (and David Letterman), now playing at Trailers from Hell!

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