Thursday, May 28, 2015

Why I Cried On The Fury Road..

So it has been nearly two weeks since George Miller stunned the world with his long-in-development return to the accidental mythology he kicked off decades ago, and I'm still emotionally dizzy from it. Not only has it instantly become one of the best contemporary examples of what I go to grand scale films for, it has also spawned the kind of enthusiasm for an R-rated film that has become anomalous in this day and age. And based upon a recent Facebook post where I openly admitted to weeping openly to it upon the second viewing, it felt proper to explain why this megabudget blockbuster allowed such an impassioned case of sheer waterworks to happen. Hint: it wasn't because of simple geek out.

While one can certainly express satisfaction by merely being affected by an impressive piece of art, there was something truly remarkable about my second viewing of Fury Road. True to what many colleagues and friends have expressed, viewing the film once simply isn't enough. The initial physical and borderline psychic shock that followed that first go-round was something that pretty much never happens to me in films. It is something more in line with what can happen at a live concert where something truly extraordinary occurred, or perhaps even a jarring life event. And while I knew for certain that I had indeed enjoyed the film's journey, it was the second watch that allowed me to soak in the surprisingly rich emotional and thematic landscape with greater impact.

What especially took me this time around, was not only how confident the entire film is with its "Show-don't-tell" methodology, but in how restrained it is with characterization. To best get emotional mileage from any story, is to best know what to tell and what to allow the audience to fill in on their own. And in the case of virtually every character in the film, this is done with a sensitivity that simply doesn't happen, especially with action cinema. Everything is meant to be told on a move, and yet Fury Road never shortchanges the viewer into best understanding where Furiosa, Max, Nux, the wives, and even the villains are through the course of their shared journeys. Knowing full well that the entire film is practically one large action scene, fragments of who these people are from the beginning to the fiery finale, are delivered with a precision and care that implies spending a great amount of time with them long before cameras rolled. Quite true to the adage that all characters in a story are but elements of one person's psyche, there is a deeper feeling at work that never feels less than personal. They are all but the cataclysmic, desolate, hopeful, and cooperative parts of a larger heart.

Something that is often all too rare in grand scale action films; heart. Despite Miller's admission that the film's sincere hopes for a more gender pluralist society weren't initially the core reason for doing the film, it certainly found it's way deep into the process. So when we take in Furiosa's last ditch effort to make up for past sins, there isn't a moment that feels grafted on, or telegraphed. Her concerns are completely understandable, and the implications of her past horrific. She has taken everything upon her shoulders to see that the society she has long helped solidify no longer clings to submission and desperation. And while her journey with Max in tow takes on truly unexpected turns, it comes like a personal revelation. We, with her, come to realize that so many suppositions about a "mythical place" are more about fostering a rebirth than escape. This is the first Mad Max film to take on the possibility of a better world on our doorstep, and it does so with a sense of personal epiphany.  

And perhaps that's it. The waterworks came, because everyone's journey is based on hope. Even as Max seems bent on taking advantage of his ride on the War Rig, and making his own way, there's still this need for him to witness some semblance of the cop and father he once was. As the odds become ever more desperate, the notion that Furiosa could be able to even fight this hard for something that might be little more than a fairy tale, not to mention the heart displayed by the wives and even Nux, a boy who could for a time only be a playback machine to a madman's dogma, becomes something even he can't deny. So by the time they encounter the Vulvalini, and choose to take back the future, everyone's journey is sealed. I felt the early distrust, to the selfishness, and later the respect and camaraderie without it ever feeling forced or false. Each character gets under the skin with just the right amount of coverage. By the finale, I was able to feel the struggle becoming that of a shared dream. Something larger than that of a mad dash between motor vehicles, crazies, and heroes. It felt like the journey of a life's purpose realized. As if all the dangers and tragedies that occurred on that path were much in line with how life can often be. The revelation of your life, and what it means to finally have a family and a goal to seek no matter the difficulty ahead.

The Fury Road becomes something of a culture's turning point, a woman's path to becoming an emissary for change, and an artist's viscerally poetic realization of a dream.

Of course, Max Rockatansky had to be there. A personal torch was there to be passed. And likely for the better.

Just Experienced Kung Fury..

After over a year of waiting, David Sandberg's Kickstarter success story has burnt out what remains of my tattered retinas. The swedish paean to all things kitschy 1980s exploitation has finally made its YouTube debut, and now I am a smoking wreck of what the eff? While the viral marketing campaign was in no way far off in how it sold this love letter to all things VHS era, the final product is definitely something that will either win you over, or lead to eyeroll migraines the likes few have ever witnessed. And while I mostly find myself in the former category, this expanded rendition of the David Hasselhoff music video that was released a little over a month ago, often feels padded where even ten minutes would have been dandy.

That said, no amount of description here will possibly do this wild short justice. From an arcade console gone amok, to a flaming baby carriage, to a martial arts challenge for the ages, this is perhaps the ultimate nod & wink to a time I still remember with bitter fondness.

Man, we were friggin' warped as kids. How can we possibly face an uncertain future?

Only Kung Fury knows for sure..

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Mad Max: How I Stopped Worrying & Learned To Live In A Waking Apocalypse

Upon beginning this little blog, it was largely under the premise that I felt a deep need to explore the nature of myth, and what it meant to reflect not only the time in which it was told, but how it can often morph over time. And few major cinematic myths have experienced quite the history as Max Rockatansky has. Once an ace office of the Main Police Force, later a wasteland-weary loner seemingly saddled with trouble wherever he goes, remains one of the more original icons of the popcorn landscape. And with the long-awaited Fury Road just about to hit screens with what seems like a harsh gale force the likes film fandom has rarely seen, it seemed right to peek back George Miller's signature hero, and what he has meant to me over the years.

Long before I even truly knew about Mel Gibson, or of George Miller, my childhood visual mythology was already running rampant with heroes of all dimensions. From Luke Skywalker to Atticus Finch, films allowed me to fine tune an image to what storybooks and good people in the real world were already informing my worldview. One could envision the path, the fear, and ultimately the choices these characters had to make before standing up to their will to run in the name of some form of good. And while these definitions were what many would call rudimentary, they carried a potent array of reminders of how important it is to learn from every experience. Sure, there were times when storytellers would pull a ruse of laziness, and expect kids to accept a hero as moral without question, and even then, young me couldn't help but suspect something was amiss on the part of the teller. Even so, complexity wasn't huge on my periphery.

So when a relative inadvertently exposed me to the original Mad Max via a trip to the local Drive-In, the very idea that a hero could be so complicated, and at times downright broken, frightened me. It also threw me for a big loop. Since Max's journey largely takes place on the sidelines as his pals on the MFP(Most notably his buddy, Goose) took precedence until the Toe Cutter and his gang shifted their evil gaze his way. Having only seen a few horror movies at the time, the encroaching doom that lurched ever closer to Max and his little family felt a little too close for comfort. Every step the marauding gang of biker hooligans took toward the inevitable was one step closer to my little mind breaking along with poor Max's. But to see our hero go so far as to handcuff a lesser villain's ankle to an overturned vehicle leaking gasoline, and left behind to die a fiery death was something that I certainly wasn't prepared for. Even when the world of the preceding ninety minutes seemed dire and decaying, it was nothing compared to the distressing feelings that wrapped up the film. Simply put, nothing was to be the same again. The road ahead could not be more uncertain for Max, not for us. Perhaps it was all too soon. A road that went foggy without warning, with only rage and sorrow as navigator.

And funny enough, a year later when we caught the follow-up at the same twin drive-in, the stomach churning finale of the original Max was mere prelude to the even more evocative apocalypse that surrounds us here. Mad Max 2 (AKA - The Road Warrior), is a classic case of reinvention that takes the promise of desolation into revelatory mythmaking peaks. Gone were the green grasslands, clean roads, and promises of populated landscapes ahead. The world had become a savage ocean of desolation on all corners that shook little kaijyu to his very bones. In this rendition of the world, there truly is noone to look to for protection. No government. No hard driving ace police. Nothing. With only machines, wits, and goodness, a little luck finding juice, one may just have a chance. It was a deep dark place where only the resourceful could survive, and I couldn't imagine kids like me having a prayer.

It also opened me up to the realization that heroes weren't bound necessarily by continuity. That depending upon who is telling the tale, our lead can take on many guises, as can the world that surrounds them. While the film does visualize that this is the same Max, it could very easily be a souped-up reincarnation since the world has indeed fallen quite a ways from where it was just one film ago. Even so, one cannot help but understand why this character evolved into a self-serving survivalist in the wake of past events. He even goes so far as to consider ditching his first real bastion of human contact with the people of the film's main setting - a refinery under siege by a gang of scavenging psychos led by the charismatic slab of beef known as The Humongus.

The leap between film worlds was made less jarring by the natural progression of Max, not to mention sheer visceral thrill of Mad Max 2's still astonishing action and sense of vision. And even as Max becomes little more than a mythical hero in the eyes of a child, it is this spark of storytelling license shorthand that allows the character to have this more plasticine nature allowing for his world to become a boundless sandbox for George Miller's fertile imagination. It's a blank check for him to upgrade/alter the post-apocalypse to whatever his heart's desire. Something that Miller and his now well-honed band of daredevils could utilize to their advantage after The Road Warrior's big splash on the global stage. Max had become as important to me a mythical figure as anyone under the auspices of Spielberg or Lucas. The bleak future had become but a canvas to place upon it a hero eternally at odds with his will to escape his greatest fear, empathy.

So when the roads finally gave way to dunes in Beyond Thunderdome, who could blame Miller and company for aiming for soft-pedaled illustrated storybook territory? At the time, Star Wars had been put to rest (or so I thought), and I was hurting pretty heavily for another cinematic legend to drive it all home, so naturally Mad Max was on my mind full cycle as Tina Turner music videos and ads promised a Max adventure on a scale unseen. Even though I was fully aware of the tragedy that befell the production before filming with the loss of producer Byron Kennedy, what I was able to see from the marketing storm that followed near release in 1985, was something striking and potentially very special.

Having Max, this time much older and used as a pawn in the power struggle between the powerful of a trade-based boomtown deep in the wasteland, was an exciting new dimension to the mythos. And while the first thirty minutes of Thunderdome indeed burned a mark into my DNA that summer, it was hard to reconcile with certain choices that were made to close the circle. From the Fellini-esque touches that graced the glorious pit known as Bartertown, to its people, to Thunderdome itself, the film flirts with a greatness that far surpasses anything that had come before. And yet, Max's adventures beyond(yeah, just go with it) end up grinding the film to a halt instead of rocketing past. And while the notion that the feral child from the previous film would be a harbinger of sorts to an entire colony of child survivors of a plane crash, is a good one, as a story it never feels fleshes out to any satisfying degree beyond the visually respledent. It's pretty much an equivalent to Jedi's Ewoks. It feels like compromise. A compromise that in many ways belittles Max, and renders him more spectator than participant.

While still a gorgeous third film, it lacks the sense of dramatic propulsion that had brought the legend of the loner cop to such a status.

And then the legend lie dormant. And George Miller had for decades distanced himself artistically with often terrific, yet baffling choices for projects. To think that the man who brought Max Rockatansky to so many hearts and minds, also brought us Lorenzo's Oil, and Babe, remains head-spinning for its' sheer willingness for experimentation and fortitude. And his forays into the realms of CG animated fare took his career into many more impressive areas. It was as if success had then allowed him to treat work as a neverending film school, where he could further explore his ongoing theses about the ordinary thrust into the extraordinary into the super-extraordinary. (Just look at the leaps between Babe and Babe: Pig In The City)

For years, I had heard wind of a return to the wasteland. And it was around 2007 when I heard about a script for Mad Max: Fury Road being in the works. And in no traditional sense either. Had heard that  a majority of the film was to flirt with the comic world by being almost wholly composed via hand drawings before a word of dialogue was written down. So for years, I had long been hoping for more information, for some news that Miller and company were to make this dream project a reality. And then come roughly 2010, it came down the pipe that it would finally come to pass. But not before production problems, delays, shooting location moves, and various other drama made it almost supernatural in how fate seemed destined to keep Max from seeking redemption again.

2015. I am now forty years old. The wait has ended.

True to his ways of re-examining his mythological figures through a new lens each time, and with great sensitivity to the world around him, Miller's return to the world that brought him the world's attention is nothing short of extraordinary.

Mad Max: Fury Road, is proof positive that passion can still survive after decades of bliss seeking. That film as art can still mean something, and that action films can indeed chart a changing world. Older me can find himself both enthralled by the intensity and often insane composition of the action. He can even be deeply impressed by the film's clear love for the cast, and it's incredible gallery of memorable characters who are only given so much dialogue. Tom Hardy's Max, is a great new interpretation of the loner hero, and should do well in subsequent films should they go that route. And Charlize Theron's turn as Imperator Furiosa does Max one better in creating a hero that can at last carry that torch alongside him no matter where she goes from here on out. And what truly captured me, was that Fury Road is a return that carries the weight of weathered experience, and a willingness to transcend anything that had come before. And that even includes sexual/gender politics, not to mention world-building, and philosophical stances.

Years of percolation has allowed the film to become both a relentless, and exhausting feast for the senses that displays an unheard of amount of affection for the world and its people. It feels like the world of Max, has in itself both an artist's rage and love that feels ready to burst. Not everyone mellows with age, and we have seen quite a bit of shifting in our lifetimes. Miller seems to use this series as a barometer for how he sees the world, and with Fury Road, he sees a world ready to slough off old skins. That perhaps the post-apocalypse isn't this nightmarish place that must be avoided or to be protected from. It is here, and that perhaps by knowing your community, and taking it back for future generations, answers will indeed come through togetherness. The film admits that such a process is hard, but with each other, perhaps it isn't quite so painful. It's possible that the reason why Thunderdome wasn't quite able to deliver Max to the ages, was because this had to happen first. Max simply wasn't ready. Miller, wasn't ready.  

And now it's here.

I finally feel ready to put aside my love for the hero, and become my own.

Maybe one day, we all can.

Image by Kaz Omori

Saturday, May 9, 2015

Ex Machina (2015) Movie Thoughts

It's always a tightrope act when a lauded scribe gets his first crack at directing a feature. And yet, novelist and occasional Danny Boyle collaborator, Alex Garland startles with unexpected ease. Brilliant young search engine coder, Caleb finds himself a winner of his company's lottery, and wins a trip to meet his oufit's reclusive CEO deep in the mountains. Completely unaware of what to expect in this clinical environment surrounded by miles of natural beauty, he is invited to participate in what could be the scientific discovery of a generation. Perhaps, of all generations.

Upon meeting the unexpectedly masculine and coolly unnerving Nathan(Oscar Isaac), Caleb is then let in on the purpose for his mysterious visit. He will be spending a week, tasked with meeting Nathan's latest technological breakthrough in hopes of performing a rigorous rendition of the Turing Test. A means by which a human can be completely fooled by a computer. When faced with this proposal, matters take on a more sinister bent when it is revealed that the subject for this test is in the form of Ava, a near-perfect replica of a humanoid machine. Featuring a body composed of largely synthetics and mesh, Ava's very human face and curiosity about Caleb makes for a powerful impression. But it isn't long before the young man, his new machine charge, and the troubling supergenius forge an air of curiosity and suspicion as Garland's tale comes up short on simple answers, but offers up a challenging bevy of questions about our current precipice of technology and philosophy.

When cinema tends to reach for answers to the ever-prescient question of the inevitable consequences of artificial intelligence, the reply almost always seems to hash out the same technophobic slant. (Just look to last week's Avengers: Age Of Ultron for yet another example) Time and again, we have been witness to morality tales about humanity's reach versus its grasp. And rarely do films that tackle the more open ends of this discussion with such openness and candor. Garland takes the quiet approach by making Nathan's stone and white colored home into a series of cells and corridors blocked by specially selected code keys, and surveillance cameras on every corner. The mountains and vegetation make for a world that makes our boy wonders on this voyage of the mind seem that much smaller.

And by that, I mean that placing the wiry, gaunt Caleb alongside the beer chugging, weight lifting Nathan, we are privy to where nerds have come over the generations. Both men have seen themselves products of a technological renaissance of sorts, and yet Nathan seems geared toward seeking a world that is more based upon controlling nature, while Caleb finds himself more and more at odds with his role in the testing. Ava seems to know more than she's letting on, and is growing more and more fond of him with each meeting. Even more disconcerting, is the only other person in Nathan's home/research facility, the practically mute Kyoko, who seems to only serve as a house servant. A game of who is playing who kicks into gear, and the screws begin to tighten to almost unbearable levels as it comes clear that what we are witnessing is a play on empathy, and what happens when we lose it in the name of juvenile desires.

And by this, I speak of the film's equating of our relationship to technology versus our most base desires. The film toys with not only Caleb's, but our collective habits in the wake of the internet, as well as many other breakthroughs in the past. There's almost always a hint of the hypersexual in ways that the average human considers advancements. So when we realize that Caleb's job, and Nathan's company is a world renowned search engine known as Blue Book, not to mention a discussion of what happens when all seach data is collated for ulterior purposes, it's not a stretch to consider Ava as a walking embodiment of the human id. In a film that could on the surface be seen as objectifying of the female form, there's a dimension at play here that harkens to a masculine world that seems to stutter behind with every new discovery with our lizard brains struggling to keep matters from evolving too rapidly. When we meet Nathan for the first time, it's clear that his demeanor defies every movie scientist archetype, and is closer to an "alpha-bro" with some serious masculinity issues. Sure, he's socially inept and bordering on megalomaniacal, but there's also a hint of perpetual pre-adolescence that pervades Isaacs' performance, and it is very much by design. Caleb, while more sedate, resembles a quiet, inquisitive teen who's a little more balanced, but racked with doubts as to Ava's motivations, and in turn Nathan's. He sees the man behind the machine, but is also in quiet awe of Ava. It's a tricky counterbalance to play, and Domnhall Gleeson slinks into it with unusual weight.

But the real find here is Alicia Vikander, who's Ava, exhudes the enthusiasm of a well-mannered and curious being who has only known a cage her whole brief life. Longing to know more about the boy sent to test her, and definitely exhibiting signs of a clear desire to embrace more colors of life, her role is all in the body language. All constantly creating a gravity with each title card designated meeting, she is magnetic, especially when her performance delivers hints at the complexity underneath her curious demeanor. Which makes for some surprising developments as the tension rises.

With a sure-handed demeanor, Garland and crew find themselves ready to tackle themes of The Singularity, and our role in it with often astonishing grace. Also important players in this piece are DP Rob Hardy, and music composers, Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow, who create a calmly sensual aura throughout.  About the only real complaint that one can lob around here, was that some of the more provocative ideas were piled upon others. The end result of course, making the whole film feel more like a weighty discussion than a solid story. Which would only hurt it if it were aiming for something that traditional. With the self-imposed budgetary restrictions on hand, Ex Machina finds itself most comfortable tackling our collective worst habits as not merely dominator male legacies, but as creatures of convenience. What the film ultimately shares is a post-human notion that perhaps the machine futures of films past had yet to allow the processing of our inevitable new roles in the evolutionary chain. And that perhaps it's of our own undoing that we find ourselves so unwilling to keep up the race as creatures of understanding. Much in the way that gender and sexual mores of the past are at last leaving the pastures of the past, so shall our technologically enabled brothers and sisters.

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Stop The Universe, I Want To Get Off (Age Of Ultron, Age Of Nope)

Months back, after thinking about how well Marvel Studios gambled to great success in 2014, it felt to me as if a great gamble had finally paid off. After decades of marginal adaptations, false starts, and years of self-conscious film production, it certainly felt as if the superhero film had finally come into its own. Every MCU film post Joss Whedon's The Avengers seemed to herald something of a salad period in which the comic book film could finally exist in all its pulpy, soap operatic glory. Gone were the notions of spandex-questioning team members, and overt grit-ification of once larger than life serial landscapes. Marvel had finally cracked the code to making films that could not only satisfy the most die-hard devotee, but also rake in droves of new action and adventure lovers the world over. It's a mix generations in the making, and as such Avengers: Age Of Ultron, feels like the final culmination of that dream.  

Which brings me to the reason for this quasi-review. As a lover of all things cinematic, as well as someone with a love for breadth of storytelling, observing the major studios and their wishes to each hone together their resources toward creating successful shared universes with which to better compete with Disney's caped juggernauts, has led me to come to a singular conclusion that may sever me from a generation that seems to be experiencing something of a cinematic renaissance - A wish to step off the shared universe concept, and to seek newer means of enjoying myths without feeling like a once powerful business' last refuge. As much as these filmmakers have been doing some impressive work, and what was once considered a shelter for young admirers of fantasy, is now considered monstrous commodity, there is something truly telling within Age Of Ultron that shares a solid, sobering message; that saturation and lack of variety are the death of vitality in all forms of communication. It's ultimately a blandening mechanism for not only business, but for art as well.

While the second chapter in what is Marvel's flagship series, Tony Stark's discovery of this deeply complex programming, leads him toward a path which places his fears at odds with his comrades. The Ultron Program, which on the surface promises a more secure world, not only from those who would threaten the Earth and its occupants, but from this increasing population of empowered beings who threaten to cause as much damage and suffering. Naturally, this doesn't fare well at all, leading to what is easily one of the most jaw-tearing grand action spectacles ever filmed. The cast travels from one end of the globe to the other as allegiances are shattered and formed, and comic book soap opera reaches the pinnacle of its form in under two-hours plus. And as impressive as it sounds, Age Of Ultron suffers largely from not only an event heavy storyline, an endless parade of characters, and a pace that stumbles rather than flows, the film grinds when the form should coast.It practically beats us into pure indifference.

Also a casualty of the form reaching this milestone; a threat to focus and memorability. Ever since Return Of The Jedi, filmmakers have been steadily piling on the multi-battle storytelling form to diminishing returns. Where once three separate battles could make the head spin, but miraculously maintain focus between character beats and dramatic pace, Ultron leaves so much underfocused, and little to actually absorb. Character moments shine, and rekindle interest, where action events are often pulling the brain apart, vying endlessly for attention. For all the technology we have to finally visualize the most astonishing visions of apocalypse, and derring do by beings that can easily resemble gods, it isn't terribly compelling, nor nearly as fun as it could be if it were mounting with something more mathematical in mind. Gone are the days of simple set pieces like the truck chase in Raiders Of The Lost Ark, where we had simple stakes, clear choreography, and editing and music that truly sell the stakes.

Which leads me to another casualty of this new paradigm..Music.

This has been addressed before elsewhere, but it couldn't be more damning a notion. That with mass production comes a lowering of standards in one section or another, and in the case of these Marvel films, there has yet to be a single truly memorable score. Considering the action pedigree that these films often pay homage to, the lack of a driving, effectively emotional orchestral score is a stunning vacuum to consider. Whether it be the work of recent composers like Henry Jackman, Brian Tyler, and even Alan Silvestri, there has yet to be the kind of consideration made for the sonic spirit of the film. Without it, and with music that often feels like temp tracks for a generic action reel, all one has is the spectacle to drive matters. Which would be fine if the stakes actually felt palpable.

So in short, once we have multiple characters with their own separate film series combining together every few years, we are pretty assured that the drama will not threaten the future. And in doing so, what our film experience is, is nothing less than episodic television. That is the end game of the shared universe model. We are ostensibly paying to watch hundred million dollar episodes, where very often the dramatic stakes (along with the music) must represent the general overhead in that they cannot reach past a certain ceiling. Which only serves to undercut the drama of what we are actually watching. This, is poisonous to the filmgoing experience to some, myself included. It simply isn't encouraging enough to enjoy another adventure of a favorite action hero, there needs to be something these characters could lose beyond a simple two hour running time. Like emotions and money, investments remain a vital part of the moviewatching experience for me, so without the feeling that there is something to lose from the drama unspooling before us, it feels very much like being treated like a creature of habit. Like a junkie. Like an ATM.

And far be it from me to determine what others should place value in, habit should not be one of them. Having been a longtime fan of anime television series, I know what it is to be taken for a ride from a serialized work that seems to offer no real dramatic stakes let alone a finite path. After a while, it feels like nothing more than a means to stay employed. It becomes a paycheck. And when routine sets in for any form of art, cracks begin to show in realms of passion. It's just inevitable. We see it in all forms of creativity whether it be punk rock, typography, and even diets; once we make the revolutionary the norm, blandness sets in, and so does the rot. It simply isn't all things to all people. Where only the addicted stick around. Again, this is perhaps a bit presumptuous, but Age Of Ultron smacks to me of the beginning of said atrophy. As Joss Whedon walks away from these megapictures, as do I. As fun as it has been, it serves the soul a great deal to seek more than mere distractions. The world is far too vast a place to spend it cycling toward infinity.

It happened to the slasher film. It happened to the simple sequel.

It will happen to the shared universe.