Movie Reviews - 2015 postsSaturday May 23, 2015
Movie Review: Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)
Currently, “Mad Max: Fury Road” has a Rotten Tomatoes rating of 98%. Critics love it. It’s one of the best-reviewed movies of the year. But I was underwhelmed. To me, it’s “Meh Max.”
What didn’t I like? What’s my major malfunction?
Well, it’s a two-hour chase movie. It’s expertly done, with powerful photography and great imagination. It’s over-the-top the way operas are over-the-top, an aria to chase in a post-apocalyptic world. But it’s a two-hour chase movie. And I could give a shit.
Why do I think critics love it? A few reasons, beyond the superlatives mentioned above:
- It’s directed by George Miller, who directed the original movies with Mel Gibson (“Mad Max,” “The Road Warrior,” “Beyond Thunderdome”), as well as small indies (“Lorenzo’s Oil”) and feel-good biggies (“Happy Feet”). So the auteur whores are on board.
- Charlize Theron’s Imperator Furiosa is a kick-ass character who is the equal, or better, of Tom Hardy’s Max. So people in favor of strong female characters are on board.
- It relies on stunts rather than CGI. We get real people up there on the screen. So the folks who are tired of CGI and want some semblance of authenticity from their absurd action movies are on board.
- Its dystopia is saturated with color and gorgeously photographed; it’s not the gray, rainy dystopias of “The Dark Knight,” “Hunger Games,” et al. So the cinematographias are on board.
Plus some people like a two-hour chase movie. I’m just not one of them.
In this post-apocalyptic world, in which the lone and level sands stretch far away, Max is haunted by the past and the present. The past is made up of loved ones he couldn’t save (wife, children). In the present, he’s simply hunted. The bad guys want him for his car, his hair, his blood. They get it all.
We’ve been reduced to a barbaric caste society: peasants (most of us, begging for food and water), the warrior class (chalky-skinned and in need of blood transfusions), and the ruling class, led by Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Bryne, Toecutter in the original “Mad Max”). He’s got massive sores on his back and a harem of Victoria’s Secret models with whom he’s hoping to breed the future of the human race. Or something.
Why does civilization end? We get snippets and crackles of news early on. Something about running out of oil, then water. Why do we run out of water? Is it global warming?
Pipe down, Brainiac, the chase is on.
The plot is propelled by Furiosa, who steals Immortan’s harem with the hope of taking them to “the green place,” the Edenic land on the other side of the desert where she grew up, and where life is good. Or reasonably so. At the moment Furiosa’s treachery is revealed, a captured Max is providing an upside-down blood transfusion to the warrior Nux (an unrecognizable Nicholas Hoult), and Nux insists on joining the chase, so he does it with Max strapped to the front of his car.
After much flipping of cars and riding into sandstorms, and after much mutual suspicion, Max and Furiosa join forces. Which makes sense. The heroes are all good-looking (Hardy, Theron, the harem), while the villains are mostly grotesques (sporting boils and gout; swimming in corpulence).
I do find it amusing that in a world of scarcity we still waste shit. We drive gas-guzzling monster trucks and spill water everywhere. No one’s careful about anything. We haven’t learned a thing.
A few moments I liked:
- When Max turns the corner and sees the supermodels washing off. It’s so absurd, such a soft-core image in such a gritty wasteland, I laughed out loud.
- The near death of The Splendid Angharad (supermodel Rose Huntington-Whitely), pregnant with Immortan’s child, since it’s followed by her actual death a second later. We go from “whew” to “oops” in a second. It’s Miller shouting, “Psych!”
- How “the green place” is no longer green, and that the answer to their problem is the place where their problems began. The chase is full circle.
- The third-act attack via poles bending over moving vehicles and dropping warriors onto our heroes.
But “Mad Max” is all about that chase, bout that chase, and I’m not. It’s an Aussie exploitation film with “A” production values. It’s what we fiddle with while the world burns. “What did you do before the apocalypse, Daddy?” “I watched post-apocalyptic movies, son.”
Movie Review: Spy (2015)
I like the running gag anyway.
Most genre spoofs occur when Hollywood takes someone who looks and acts like us (a schlub) and places them in an exciting genre movie (western, action-adventure, spy thriller). The laughs come when the schlub tries to live up to the genre and falls flat, while the catharsis comes when the schlub becoming the wish-fulfillment fantasy figure in the end. The genre may be mocked but it ultimately wins. Wish-fulfillment fantasy wins. We want us on the screen but no we don’t. See, among recent movies, “The Other Guys,” “A Million Ways to Die in the West,” “The World’s End,” “The LEGO Movie,” and “21/22 Jump Street.”
Paul Feig’s “Spy,” starring Melissa McCarthy, is another spoof—this time, obviously, of James Bond-type spy thrillers—but with a feminist twist.
Susan Cooper (McCarthy) is an assistant to superspy and superhunk Bradley Fine (Jude Law), of whom she’s enamored, quietly and painfully, even as she expertly guides him—via earpiece, cameras and high-tech CIA equipment—through missions. Then she watches him die at the hands of Raina Boyanov (Rose Byrne), who has a wayward nuke she’s willing to sell to the highest bidder. Or willing to sell to the person who will sell to the highest bidder. Or something.
Anyway, with Fine dead, Susan finally gets the gumption to ask her boss, Elaine Crocker (Allison Janney), for a field assignment to gather intel on Boyanov and get revenge for Fine. She travels to all the exotic locales, Paris, Rome, and Budapest, trailed, or preceded, by Rick Ford (Jason Statham), a CIA agent who went rogue after he didn’t get the assignment. Since he looks and acts like Jason Statham, we assume he’s super-competent, but he’s not. He’s a loud, tough-talking doofus. It’s Susan who’s super-competent. She’s smarter, tougher, quicker-minded and a better fighter than almost everyone around her. She just never got to display it because, you know, women in the workplace.
Susan, in other words, merely looks like us, but acts, almost from the beginning, like the hero. So where’s the spoof? In the way she tries to live up to the genre.
Spies are glamorous. They are given cool clothes and cool cars and cool devices with which to take out the bad guys. Susan is obviously not glamorous, but she thinks the assignment will help. Except she’s given dowdy clothes and dowdier identities (cat lady, etc.), while her Q-like weapons are hidden, not in cigarettes or sports cars, but stool softener packages, foot fungal sprays and rape whistles. Her disappointment each time is palpable. It’s a good running gag.
Overall, I was a bit disappointed—not least because “Spy” opened the Seattle International Film Festival, a spot usually reserved for small prestige pictures—but I was surprised by a couple of things.
I was taken aback that a wayward nuke that may get into the hands of al Qaeda was at the centerpiece of a comedy. That felt risky. Every time it was brought up, I didn’t exactly feel like laughing.
The other thing that surprised me was how uncomfortable I felt in the end. Bradley Fine, it turns out, isn’t dead but playing the double-agent game to get the nuke to save the world. And while Susan is busy saving the world, he overhears how much he means to her. In the end, he confronts her with this. He seems to soften, to become interested in her, and you think the movie is going to go in that direction. It doesn’t. She dismisses his overtures and ends the movie walking off with her friend, and the woman in her earpiece, the gangly Nancy (a very funny Miranda Hart). Cue credits.
But in that moment when there was just a chance that Jude Law and Melissa McCarthy would wind up together? I felt horribly uncomfortable.
Obviously because of the way she looks. And because in our society, women who look like her don’t wind up with men who look like him. The reverse is sometimes true, particularly on TV sitcoms (see Jim Belushi/Courtney Thorne-Smith), or if the schlubby man in question is rich or famous or both (Paul Allen/Laura Harring). But rarely do we get the hot man/dumpy woman dynamic. Men are just too shallow when it comes to looks, while women are too shallow when it comes to works.
But—to drill down a bit—was I uncomfortable with this potential romance because it felt false or because I found it unappetizing?
Sadly, I think more toward the latter. And the more I thought about it, the more I kept flashing on Dustin Hoffman’s great epiphany during the making of “Tootsie”: how he wanted his character, Dorothy Michaels, to be better-looking, and how it wasn’t going to happen. He realized that he (Dorothy) was the type of woman that he (Dustin) would never talk to at a party. Because she didn’t fit his notion of female beauty. And what a loss that was.
Is this more of that? I think it is. An odd, deep revelation to carry with me from a spy spoof.
Movie Review: Love & Mercy (2015)
It’s not a great movie but it is a sad fucking story.
Most music biopics follow a familiar pattern: hardscrabble beginnings, slow rise, white-hot stardom; then something gets in the way of the success: drugs, sex, overwork, marital and/or bandmate discord, maybe all of the above. After that mess, we get recovery, resurrection, final concert footage.
Here’s the problem: I almost never have sympathy for the artist once they become famous. You did too many drugs? You fooled around on your wife too much? My heart bleeds.
But with Brian Wilson? Yeah, there’s sympathy. God, yeah.
Wouldn’t it be nice if we were older
“Love & Mercy” is only the second movie directed by Bill Pohlad—son of Carl, the former owner of the Minnesota Twins—but he’s been producer on some of the greatest movies of the 21st century: “Brokeback Mountain,” “The Tree of Life,” “12 Years a Slave.” He’s also, from my understanding, a big music fan. In the Twin Cities, the Twins and the local music scene are intertwined in a way I haven’t seen in many other cities. One assumes this was Bill’s pet project.
The movie—like Brian himself, you could say—is split into two parts, with two actors playing him.
In 1965, a young Brian (Paul Dano), the chief singer-songwriter of the Beach Boys, is haunted by anxieties and discord, so he gives up touring with the band in order to work on what would become his great achievement: “Pet Sounds.” He retreats into the studio before the Beatles did, but he did it alone, without the camaraderie and competition that Lennon and McCartney had with each other. One wonders what might have been if Mike Love (Jake Abel) had been an equal partner in the process. Or was Brian, a solitary figure, doomed from the start?
The other half of the film is set in the late ’80s, and it’s from the perspective of Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks), a beautiful blonde saleswoman at a Cadillac dealership. One day she sees a pair of shoes outside a display car and finds a man (John Cusack) inside. Or man-child? He has a childlike way of talking that recalls Tom Hanks in “Big” and she doesn’t quite know what to make of him. When he asks her to sit in the car with him and then locks the doors, it’s a little creepy. But he just wants to sit there. He just wants to be calm. There are men watching him, bodyguards, he says, adding, “That’s a funny word—bodyguard.” A minute later, he says, “My brother died.” A minute later, she finds out from his handler, Dr. Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti), who he is.
The first part of the movie is about the triumph of an artistic rise intercut with the anxiety of a personal downfall. The second part of the movie is about the triumph of a love story intercut with anxious revelations about how bad things are for one of the lovers. Brian may be a rock legend but he’s also a virtual prisoner of Dr. Landy, a martinet with an explosive temper, who has control over Brian’s finances, diet, drugs, life, and who lives in Brian’s bigger house up the coast. Landy tries to control Melinda, too.
Was Brian always a prisoner of something? Or someone? His father, Murry (Bill Camp), was a martinet who boxed his ears as a child, damaging them and him. In the’60s, we see Murry: 1) disparage Brian’s new direction; 2) manage a Beach Boys-like band to replace his sons; and 3) sell the Beach Boys catalogue of songs since he thinks their wave of success is over. There’s not one good thing about him. Same with Landy. Both are monsters, while Brian is generally a victim. He’s like some jelly creature who’s washed up on shore without a shell, defenseless against kids poking him with sticks.
In the ’60s, Brian handles his defenselessness by retreating into his bed for years, but the second half of the movie demonstrates that retreat is not an option. Particularly if you’re wealthy and talented, people will find you and use you. And the sticks will get sharper.
In the kind of world where we belong
Dano as young Brian is perfect, while Cusack is good as the 50-year-old version. The scenes where he’s trapped by Landry, and by his own mental illness, are tough to watch. I’m thinking in particular of the hamburger scene, and that quick, wrecked image by the piano.
It’s tough to make mental illness and drug abuse interesting and “Love & Mercy” doesn’t quite succeed in doing it. Maybe because it focuses too much on the illness (where Brian's a victim) and hardly at all on the drug abuse (where he’s more accountable)? We don't get a great sense of the other Beach Boys, and we don’t quite understand why Melinda falls for Brian beyond the fact that he’s Brian Wilson.
But you do feel for the man. After the movie, you keep exhaling. You go home and you listen to “Pet Sounds” again.
Movie Review: Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)
Short age, long movie.
“Avengers: Age of Ultron” is a good comic book movie with interesting themes, smart dialogue, kick-ass action sequences and a few overlong and dull romantic subplots. Writer-director Joss Whedon throws it all in there. The Avengers big battle is less with Ultron than with the kitchen sink.
So why do I feel unthrilled? Is it because I don’t quite get how Ultron was created and/or defeated? Is it because the sound and fury between these two acts signifies nothing? Is it because I’m 52?
I think it’s because I’m 52 and I’ve seen this movie before. Battle, pause; battle, pause; battle, lead-up to final battle, final battle, epilogue. Credits. Next villain introduced: Hello, Thanos! (Dibs on title.)
It’s ironic that puppets on strings are a theme here, since you sense the corporate hand in moving the Avengers about the globe for international box-office advantage: first Eastern Europe, then Africa, then South Korea. To Marvel’s credit, two of the battlegrounds are fictional, Sokovia and Wakanda, where, no matter how good the movie, the box office will be zero.
Although maybe I’m just being cynical. Maybe the Avengers are moved about the globe to live up to the “Earth” part of “Earth’s Mightiest Heroes.”
Mac vs. PC
There’s a line from Victoria Williams’ “Crazy Mary” I’ve always loved:
What you fear the most
Could meet you halfway
That’s this. The movie is about the Avengers dealing with the aftermath of the battle of New York, which is like the U.S. dealing with the aftermath of 9/11. And how the things we do to protect ourselves may actually make us less safe.
The movie begins in medias res, with the Avengers in Sokovia attacking a castle and bantering amongst themselves. It’s a bit confusing. There’s some guy named Strucker (Thomas Kretschmann), who’s been experimenting on people? And in the process has created two new super-powered beings: Pietro/Quicksilver (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Wanda/Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen)? Even though these two are mutants in the Marvel universe? At least we get a good Whedonesque line. Strucker: Can we hold them? Flunky (hands in the air): They’re the Avengers.
After the castle’s defenses are breached, Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) comes across some doohickeys in a basement lab, where Wanda puts a spell on him, making him see what he fears the most. In his case, it’s the Earth attacked, the Avengers dead, himself guilty. Back at Avengers headquarters in midtown Manhattan, this fear propels him to create Ultron, which he foresees as “a suit of armor around the world.” Except he and Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) can’t make it work after, like, a couple days. So while they’re at a swanky party on the top floor of Avengers headquarters—nice cameo from Stan “The Man” Lee as a drunk WWII vet—Ultron (voice of James Spader) creates himself, then defeats Jarvis, Stark’s mainframe computer program, in a battle of the computer programs. It’s like Mac vs. PC. (Ultron, evil and full of bugs, is obviously the PC.)
Eventually, our heroes track Ultron to Wakanda, Africa, which has a rich source of vibranium, and which was used to create Captain America’s shield. Ultron wants it for ... himself? I guess? Anyway, there’s another all-out battle, and Scarlet Witch gets into the heads of most of the rest of the Avengers, and they have bad visions. Thor is stuck at an Asgaardian party, for example, while Captain America is stuck at a World War II-era party. So not exactly the worst visions in the world. Then an annoyed Hulk and a supersized Iron Man battle each other and destroy a small city.
Third battle’s in Seoul, where Ultron is trying to create a humanoid figure for himself, with skin and everything. Although since his goal is to destroy the human race, why would he want to appear more human? Either way, the Avengers steal the in-utero project, and use it to recreate Jarvis, who is renamed the Vision (Paul Bettany). Then the final battle, in which Ultron lifts a huge chunk of Sokovia into the sky in order to drop it and recreate the global dust cloud that killed the dinosaurs. This time for us.
Psst. The Avengers stop him in the nick of time.
Grace in our failings
I liked the oddness of Ultron. He’s buggy. At one point, in a big speech, he even seems to forget the word children.
Everyone creates the thing they fear. Men of peace create engines of war. Avengers create invaders. Parents create ... smaller people? Um. Children. [Chuckles] Lost the word there.
But I don’t think Whedon does enough with this. Most of Ultron’s schtick is generically malevolent: “Your extinction,” etc.
I also like how Ultron and Vision are the best and worst aspects of Tony Stark, but again Whedon doesn’t do much with this. Sure, in Wakanda, Ulysses Klau notices Ultron’s Starkian similarities and gets his arm ripped off for the effort. And Ultron does have a slower, more methodical version of Stark’s laser-sharp wit—as when he considers what humanity has done with vibranium. “The most versatile substance on the planet,” he says, “and they used it to make a frisbee.”
This bit of dialogue between Vision and Ultron is probably the best in the movie:
Vision: I suppose we’re both disappointments.
Ultron [chuckles]: I suppose we are.
Vision: Humans are odd. They think order and chaos are somehow opposites and try to control what won’t be. But there is grace in their failings. I think you missed that.
Ultron: They’re doomed
Vision: Yes... but a thing isn’t beautiful because it lasts. It is a privilege to be among them.
Ultron: You're unbearably naive.
Vision: Well... I was born yesterday.
It’s also the key to why I wasn’t exactly thrilled with the movie. “There is grace in their failings” is a great line, but for the Avengers here, as for most heroes in most roller-coaster movies, failure is not an option, while most of the main characters are forced to stay alive for the sequel. Where’s the surprise? Nowhere. We exult in the ride, but there’s not exactly grace in it.
I have to hand it to Whedon, though. He gives us the kitchen sink yet somehow leaves us wanting more. One word more, to be precise.
Movie Review: Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck (2015)
In 1994, I was living with three other people in a house on 77th and Sunnyside in Seattle, writing in my spare time, and schlepping at a bookstore warehouse. One day that spring, I was biking home from work when I turned onto Woodlawn Avenue near Gregg’s Green Lake Cycles and ran into a cloud of exhaust. I quickly saw the cause: a riderless motorcycle putt-putt-putting by the curb next to a café. I’m sure my face screwed up into a kind of “What kind of asshole would leave his bike...?” when in rapid succession: 1) I noticed the tall lanky dude in leathers sitting at the café’s outside table; 2) recognized him as Krist Novoselic of Nirvana; 3) saw how bereft he looked; and 4) knew why. Just a few days earlier, Kurt Cobain had taken his life. That’s about when Novoselic noticed me noticing him. My face must’ve still looked annoyed because his face took on a combative look. It challenged mine to say or do something. I simply nodded and kept biking. Anything else, even a kind word, would’ve felt intrusive.
In Brett Morgen’s powerful documentary, “Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck,” Novoselic, older and balder, still looks bereft. It’s 25 years later, and he’s still wondering what the hell happened. In a sense, that’s what the doc is about.
There aren’t many talking heads here. Per the title, it’s mostly montages and mash-ups from family photos and 8-milimeter film, plus audio of Kurt’s younger days set to animation, along with illustrations out of Cobain’s numerous notebooks. This last might be the most interesting gateway into his mind. All the things he writes. The things he writes again and again. Sometimes it’s breakthrough stuff, such as the word NIRVANA appearing as he’s listening to punk rock in Aberdeen. Sometimes it’s sadly prophetic. “I don’t mind if I don’t have a mind,” for example. Or more explicitly: “The joke’s on you so kill yourself.”
The doc’s title comes from one of Cobain’s audiotape mashups, made in Aberdeen in the 1980s, and when you think about—and I really hadn’t—you realize that almost everything he did was montage. His lyrics are snippets. Sometimes they’re epigrams (“I’m worse at what I do best”); other times, incomprehensible (“Meat-eating orchids forgive no one just yet”). Even the chorus to his most famous song, the song that sprung us all from the awful ‘80s, is a montage of thoughts that only form cohesiveness through the drive, energy and anger of the music:
With the lights out, it’s less dangerous
Here we are now, entertain us
I feel stupid and contagious
Here we are now, entertain us
I knew the basics of Cobain: Aberdeen, punk scene, reluctant rock star, stomach troubles, heroin, Courtney Love, boom. “Montage” fills in the blanks.
He was born four years later than I, enjoyed a happy childhood as I did; then his parents divorced as mine did. It’s shocking seeing some of these similarities. We shared pop culture. As a kid he drew H.R. Pufnstuf and as a teen recorded the Brady Bunch singing “Sunshine Day.” This last was surely ironic. At the same time, there is a sense that, having lost his idyllic childhood, he wanted it back. He wanted normalcy.
Instead, after the divorce, he was shunted from parent to parent to grandparent, but nobody could take him for more than a few weeks. There is some suggestion of hyperactivity. There is some suggestion of some form of Ritalin that didn’t take.
I tend to think of angry guys as tough guys, but Cobain was hyper-sensitive. He hated and feared humiliation and couldn’t stand negative reviews or being psychoanalyzed. In high school, he wasn’t just not popular; he was reviled and isolated. There’s a tale told in animation—narrated by him?—of his doofus friends visiting a low-IQ fat woman who lived alone, and mocking her and distracting her while they swiped liquor from her basement. When Cobain realizes what’s happening we expect (thanks in part to Hollywood) that he’ll break free of these idiots, or somehow come to the woman’s aid; instead he returns by himself to have sex with her—his first sexual experience. When word gets out, he’s mocked in school as the “retard fucker.” It’s a small, sad story that leaves a bad taste, but it’s redeemed by its brutal honesty.
Most of the talking heads are members of Kurt’s family—mom, sister, dad, stepmom—and they navigate us through his childhood; but once he’s living with (and off of) his girlfriend, we delve into his mind with the audio/animation and the notebooks springing to life. It’s an effective treatment. We don’t get Novoselic saying, “I met Kurt when ...” or “We decided on the name when ...” It’s Kurt’s thoughts and stories and homemade audio leading to Sub-POP and rock posters and the beautiful burst of Nirvana’s cover of “Molly’s Lips.” The way Morgen tells the story is a little like Nirvana’s music (quiet verse leading to angry chorus), but it also gives us a sense of what it’s like to go from nowhere to everywhere, as Cobain did. One moment Nirvana is doing a promo show at a record store on the Ave, the next they’re playing stadium concerts. The huge crowds, shot from the stage, have never seemed more monstrous.
About a Girl
Cobain’s rise is fascinating—as rises tend to be—but then it becomes the Kurt and Courtney show and gets dull fast. To me, there’s not many people less interesting than 1) happy loving couples, and 2) junkies. I would’ve cut some of this. But the rest is powerful and inventive.
We’re left with questions. The stomach troubles that led to the heroin use—surely he saw a doctor about this once he became rich. Or was he too far gone on heroin by then? Morgen seems to imply that he finally took his life because of hyper-sensitivity over Courtney Love merely thinking about cheating on him—we end with Cobain playing “Where Did You Sleep Last Night” on MTV Unplugged—but is this a reach, given everything else? The fame, the stomach troubles, the heroin—a word, by the way, he never learned to spell, adding a Quayle-esque “e” to the end every time. Left unmentioned, but jarring to me as I watched, is how much his mom looks like what Courtney Love might look like in 20 years.
There’s a lot that’s disturbing in the doc but a beautiful honesty, too. It’s about as up-close a look as you’ll get of a major cultural figure. It’s almost claustrophobic.