Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Mad Max: Fury Road

While each year seems to bring more rehashes and less original thoughts to the neighborhood multiplex, 2015 seems to be leaving less room than usual for brand new stories and characters.  Coming soon are new TERMINATOR, JURASSIC PARK, PEANUTS, and of course STAR WARS movies.  More remakes of films like POLTERGEIST and POINT BREAK.  And a calvalcade of Marvel Comics adaptations.  You could argue that even the films that are not based on old favorites are familiar sounding plotlines.  Same old story.  We bitch about it every year.  I admit that I do look forward to some of the new installments of well known franchises, hoping that, yes, some of the old magic will be created but also that a fresh perspective can enliven the proceedings.

This summer's MAD MAX: FURY ROAD is the fourth installment in the series, the last of which was released in 1985.  The previous movies were colorful, unique entertainments that introduced Mel Gibson to the world and had salient ecological messages wrapped in amazing art direction and breathtaking stunt work.  After a few abortive attempts to restart the series over the past decade plus, original director George Miller has roared back with one of the most intense motion pictures I think I've ever seen.  An absolutely relentless, supremely bad-ass punk rock two hours that leaves you feeling as if you too were dragged among a parade of ultra souped up vehicles screaming across the desert.

That really sums up this film.  Non-stop chase.  I thought the second movie, THE ROAD WARRIOR was crazy, but nothing like this. There are a few quieter, even reflective moments in FURY ROAD, but otherwise this is sixth gear insanity with a plethora of edits that leave viewers - at times - completely blindsided but for the most part I knew who was fighting who, and why.  I read that Miller played around with frame speeds, slowing it down when it was hard to catch what was happening, but also speeding it up when it was too obvious.

From this and other reviews, you might think that MAD MAX: FURY ROAD is just mindless action.  Red meat for the craving.  I found somewhat more, even if the character of Max (Tom Hardy) is not front and center this time out. The setting is still a post-apocalyptic future where warring factions covered in body paint and grotesque masks desperately scrounge for water and fuel (yet there always seems to be enough for all those chases).  Quick flashbacks again reveal Max's tragic losses of wife and child, the latter of whom often appears to him for encouragement and fortitude at key moments.

But this time the character of Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron) takes the wheel, quite literally, in her quest for gasoline and meanwhile freeing a quintet of (some pregnant) wives from the loathsome Imortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne), who hordes the aforementioned precious fluids from the unfortunate residents at The Citadel, a network of pipes and machinery that will delight any steampunk fans in the audience.  The chase is on.  Soon Joe and and his frightening band of psychopaths piloting muscle cars on steroids are in pursuit. Max, first a human hood ornament but later a reluctant aide, jumps in and becomes integral to the mix, though his driving, fighting, and marksmanship skills aren't what perhaps they used to be.  I found that to be a nice touch.   Amidst the wreckage, we learn a little about Furiosa's actual mission.  

"A little", and maybe not enough.  Miller and co-screenwriters have given food for thought but their script is a bit thin.  I found myself helping the story, filling in gaps.  Yes, there is female empowerment (also refreshing in such a brutal scenario) and even some feminism but I feel more scenes were needed to flesh this out.  The film could've used a wee bit more exposition for the ladies. I wanted to know more of their clan, their history. Maybe in the DVD release...? What info. we are given nonetheless gives the movie some gravitas. 

And Miller really makes the thing work.  A Western on hot wheels. A movie that pounds the hypnotic sands and salt flats of the landscape (beautiful work by DP John Seale) with heart stopping stunts and battles that thankfully have the barest of CGI - this is old school film making.  The director even recruited members of the Cirque du Soleil troupe for some of the acrobatics. I'd love to see the storyboards.  Every bit of mayhem was meticulously choreographed, and it knocked the wind out of me.  I was exhilarated and impressed by MAD MAX: FURY ROAD, a film best taken like that of your favorite rock song.  Hell, one of those vehicles even sports a row of kettle pounders and on the grille, a guy wailing on a guitar that shoots fire out of its neck.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Help!

 
The Beatles' second feature, 1966's HELP! is again helmed by mad cinematacist Richard Lester, a proven maven with all things slapstick. You might also call him the grandfather of the musical promo clip. His influence on the later popularity of music videos was recognized by MTV with awards back in the days when "music" was still integral to its programming.  The wellspring of ingenious gaggery and overlapping dialogue is even more pronounced in HELP!, though perhaps that is why I found it less satisfying than A HARD DAY'S NIGHT, which for all of its mayhem was a lesson in elegant economy by comparison.

This time out, there is something resembling an actual plot: an Eastern religious cult goes to outrageous lengths to retrieve a ring that is integral to their human sacrifice rituals. The very ring on drummer Ringo Starr's digit. How it got there is of no importance. Neither is what ultimately happens by the finale, when most of the cast is seen frolicking on a beach. The production leapfrogs from London to Austria to the Bahamas.

HELP! seems created with the intent of outdoing the earlier movie.  Classic case of the sophomore jinx. It feels as if Lester and company were concerned that they may not get the opportunity to shoot another film and crammed every wacky thought that popped into their heads. And what about our boys? Interviews reveal that they felt left behind in this enterprise of extremity. Was it all that ganja that Lennon reported was being smoked for breakfast? They do seem adrift a good deal of the time.  Up to the physical challenges but clearly disengaged and maybe even disinterested?  Lennon (or was it McCartney?) stated that he felt like an extra in his own movie! Perhaps the film's title summed up the feelings of more than one cast member. 

For all of the energy (and music), it's a bit odd that nothing in HELP!, unlike within its predecessor, struck me as iconic. Even that scene when Paul plays a woman like a guitar. The film bursts with far more ideas than I can recall at this moment. It is full tilt goonery, if you will, a breathless kaleidoscope of activity that never pauses to consider if any of the gags actually gel. It is a burlesque of color and costume design. Expertly designed scenes all wiggly and in search of a coherent whole, if such a thing is even possible with this collection.  It is not an exaggeration to say that its end credits were a relief to see; I was exhausted.  Perhaps some ruthlessness in the editing room might've been just the ticket to ride.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Wild Mountain Honey

Have you ever had a song that became emblematic of a trip you took? Maybe a tune you already knew.  Perhaps one first heard during your journey.  Something about it expands and embodies that place and the overall experience.  Then, forever linked in your mind to it.  It may have nothing to do, lyrically at least, with where you found yourself.

I went to Ohio late last summer, Cincinnati area, to visit relatives.  I witnessed suburban and city blocks that had a certain melancholia that was hard to describe. It was hanging over the downtown area, around Reds stadium and beyond, over the river to Kentucky.  Like years of untold numbers of residents' hardships and longings were trying to breathe out their stories.  Their words somehow etched upon and personified through old architecture and beaten landscapes.  Something more intuitive though.  I pick up on vibes with each town I visit.  Some are very favorable (Chicago, any town in California, Boston, Vancouver), and others not (New Orleans, Seattle, Miami).  Cincinnati was comforting and sad all at once.

One night we were in an upstairs bar within a restaurant.  My cousins were friends with the owner and we all chatted up a sundry of things.  The place was once a house in which the owner and his wife lived.  The very bar at which we sat had been part of their bedroom.  Good music was surrounding us the entire evening but at one point a positively hypnotic tune grabbed - through a slightly buzzed haze - my attention.  I knew the melody, had heard perhaps somewhere in my distant past.  I pointed my smartphone in the direction of the speaker and Shazam informed me that I was listening to Steve Miller's "Wild Mountain Honey" (from the album Fly Like an Eagle)

Something so seductive about it.  Not a rocker like many of Miller's songs, rather a dreamy synthesizer swirl with an Eastern feel. Nice sitar and oboe action.  The lyrics describe, something.  Something to be sought rather than the "golden machine" of material riches. A call to return to nature, possibly.  A plea for a simple life.  But whatever the intent, "Wild Mountain Honey" instantly was married to a wonderful night of great craft beer and fascinating conversations that delved into restaurant critics and adoption. The song was just the perfect accompaniment, and it continued in my head while other tracks played on.  It remained as we walked home, through a spooky, pitch black woodsy trail leading back to my cousin's house.  And how perfect - a piece of soil thus far untouched by developers.  Thinking back on that, Miller's words have far more weight.

The song came up on my phone last week and I immediately thought of that peaceful evening, but also the entire weekend in Cincy.  "Wild Mountain Honey" has a somewhat sad tenor wrapped in its hypnotic arrangement.  Truly emblematic.












Sunday, May 17, 2015

Little Murders

 
Spoilers!

Jules Feiffer's play Little Murders had a notoriously brief run on Broadway in the 1960s, but unsurprisingly found a life off-Broadway, a more appropriate setting for such an unremittingly black comedy. The film adaptation followed in 1971, with Feiffer's script and direction by Alan Arkin, and it remains an apt time capsule for life in NYC in the days of Vietnam and the counter to the counterculture.  The fallout from the 1960s. LITTLE MURDERS in fact may be the best depiction of early 70s urban paranoia I've seen.  I imagine many viewers could not be blamed for "suburban flight" after seeing this picture.

And what better way to deal with the nightmarish atmosphere than with dark humor? Just like real New Yorkers did/do! Interior designer Patsy Newquist (Marcia Rodd) is an aggressive, single woman who deals with obscene phone calls, street noise, purple air on Lexington Avenue, and Lord knows what other urban horrors seemingly every waking hour. She smiles through her lonely existence with tennis games and ski trips. One day she comes to the rescue of a hapless man named Alfred (Elliott Gould) who is being mugged by a group of punks. But what a jerk! He doesn't even thank her! To add insult (and fuel to her already damaged opinion of the opposite sex), he explains that he doesn't even mind getting attacked, as the thugs will eventually get tired anyway. Why fight it? Alfred is a self described "apathist."

When asked what he likes to do, Alfred replies  "Take pictures and sleep."  "What about sex?" Patsy wonders. "I like sex, it helps me sleep."  Alfred is in fact a photographer, quite good, though reduced to shooting pictures of dog excrement for a magazine. As with many introverts, his photos are of things, not people. When Patsy sees the gallery on his wall, she's impressed.  Despite his passivity, she falls for him.  Strangely, she's attracted to his virtual silence and withdrawal when she brings him home to meet her family. But she will be determined to mold him into the sort of fella who hits back. This includes encouraging him to visit the parents he hasn't seen in many years in an effort to understand why he is the way he is.

I could say more about the events in LITTLE MURDERS, how a truly unexpected moment during the second hour not only hammers Feiffer's points but also elicits a huge gasp. A moment that points the way toward the grimly funny climax, a devastating punchline. The ultimate statement on survival in the urban jungle. Boldly stated, but not overstated.

But throughout the film, beautifully shot by Gordon Willis, the plight of the 20th century urbanite is portrayed in a similarly trenchant vein, often riotously funny (as you cringe). The constant "brownouts",  Alfred earning nary a second glance while riding the subway, despite being covered in blood, Patsy's manic, juvenile brother, Donald Sutherland's cameo as the atheist who marries our couple. His vows have become some sort of classic, as have the speeches of Lou Jacobi as a reluctant judge and Arkin himself as a stressed out detective. John Randolph and Doris Roberts are also effective as Alfred's cold parents, unable to answer his questions except with memorized passages from psychiatric journals.

LITTLE MURDERS is heavy stuff, not light viewing, but possibly the prototype for all the dark comedies to follow.  Arkin maintains a perfect pace and ably shifts tone when necessary.  It's a high wire act that doesn't always make it but any film that tries to juggle societal pressures, immigration, self defense, privacy, surveillance, gun control, law enforcement, and the primal alpha male within even the meekest is worth at least respect.  And it is devastating funny.

Friday, May 15, 2015

Cryin' the Blues on a Friday


"When I do eventually drop, I pray to God that it will happen in one of three ways.  Firstly, on stage or leaving the stage, then secondly in my sleep.  And the third way?  You'll have to figure that out for yourself!"

- B.B. King



Rest in Peace.  May you not have been downhearted in those remaining moments.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Watership Down

Indirect Spoilers

I have thought more pointedly about death these past few months.  It's always been a topic of fascination, dread, and even comfort.  You may have read here that I've lost my maternal grandmother and stepfather-in-law recently.  I'm still processing, running a wide gamut of feelings.  Amidst the grief comes a sobering reminder of your own mortality, that someday you'll be lowered into the ground or perhaps scattered at sea like the loved ones before you.  You being your earthly remains, the house in which your soul once lived. Depending on your beliefs, death can be a frightening or even greatly anticipated event.  Some view it as the beginning of an afterlife.  Others believe they will merely become carbon.  Either way, for those left behind the sorrow of loss is considerable.

Richard Adams' 1972 novel Watership Down is about death.  The story follows a group of rabbits who flee their warren after one warns the others of his apocalyptic dreams. He envisions a peaceful spot called Watership Down.  Their journey to it is filled with treachery and peril.  The 1978 animated feature of the same name is essentially faithful to the source, retaining generous characterizations and allegory.  Though, as with many works of art, the creator denies any overt efforts at, for example, political statements.  Adams in fact said he wrote the novel in order to have a story with animals to read to his children at bedtime.

Director Martin Rosen explains in an interview on the new Criterion disc that he was entirely unfamiliar with animation: what it means to "direct" it, how to film it, etc.  He did not know the language. Despite this, he and his team have created one of what I consider the best "cartoons" of its time. Director Guillermo del Toro - also interviewed for Criterion's package - agrees.  WATERSHIP DOWN is a stunningly hand drawn watercolor - filled with recreations of actual countryside locations - that teems with quiet power, making gut wrenching statements without garishness or spectacle.  It does this despite the requisite pop song sequence (Art Garfunkel's "Bright Eyes") and some plotting that seems emphasized to crescendo suspense a bit more for popcorn munchers.

By the way - the "Bright Eyes" segment is extremely powerful and wholly appropriate.  Unlike that in other films where songs are clumsily inserted to increase Billboard chart position.  Garfunkel's heavenly voice is ideal to accompany the appearance of the Black Rabbit of InlĂ©, an equivalent to the Grim Reaper, whose scepter hangs over every event of the story.

WATERSHIP DOWN has an intriguing motif - everything is a predator to something else.  Our heroes are terrorized by man, dogs, cats, other rabbits.  The gull called Kehaar - who helps the protagonists find mates and escape danger- is frequently shown chasing and gulping flying insects in moments that are presumably humorous throwaways but really fit the theme. What about those tiny creatures? Are they less important than main characters Hazel or Fiver?

What did Frith, the god who created all the animals of the earth (shown in a brilliant and very creatively animated opening sequence), intend?  How do we look at our furry friends? Pets? Meat?  How do they (and the larger ones in the wild) look at us? There must be a hierarchy.  Adams creates one with each rabbit character, some of whom are mere warrior minions for their respective warrens.  Some resemble attempts at utopia, others as gulags ruled with fear.  Others may appear safe but have a hidden agenda, with perhaps someone higher up on the food chain pulling the strings.  You can take this idea as far as your theological leanings allow.  I was reminded of several King James verses throughout this movie.

WATERSHIP DOWN was an English production, with fine voice work by the likes of John Hurt, Denholm Elliott, Ralph Richardson, and many others. The lone American in the cast, Zero Mostel voices Kehaar with what sounds like an exaggerated attempt at a Romanian accent.  His inclusion is the only hint of comic relief, but as remarked earlier even the so-called playful moments can be observed from another angle, revealing something darker.

I can barely even think about this film without feeling a well in my eye. Just writing this review waters my vision.  The more deeply you ponder this story, the more unbearable it may become.  I felt this way when I first viewed it many years ago and possibly was more wrecked when I watched it a few weeks back.  There have been more passages from this world since my childhood.  Did they have a moment similar to Hazel's in their final seconds?

I immediately think of the bittersweet final moments.  A scene that is both unspeakably sad and ultimately hopeful.  That sums up the entire tale.   It's an awesomely moving story told without sentiment.  Its themes drive both intellectual and emotional interest in unexplainable ways.  Many will find the picture an unrelenting downer, others will find optimism through the salt of their tears. All should come away with a renewed or new found respect for nature.  Be sure to read noted comic book writer Gerald Jones' essay included in the DVD packaging - it analyzes WATERSHIP DOWN in a far better fashion than do my words.

Friday, May 8, 2015

Over the Edge

As I recently re-watched 1979's OVER THE EDGE, which is based on actual events,  I kept wondering if the entire mess would even happen these days. That is not to say that mobs no longer form, and violence doesn't erupt.  But among the demographic featured in this movie: white, suburban kids of at least moderate privilege, I bet that these days such thoughts of destruction would never gel because everyone is too busy being hypnotized by their smartphones.

Of course, you could argue that such connectivity would just get the word out faster. But in an insular community such as New Grenada, back in a much simpler time, everyone knew everyone, saw them at the rec center. If you and your similarly disaffected and bored friends (many of them "latchkey kids") wanted to torch the whole damned community because your parents were more interested in building shopping centers and selling Cadillacs than in quality time with you, well....
I've already more or less summarized what occurs in OVER THE EDGE, one of the best illustrations of disillusioned youth culture I've seen.  It shares the same frustrations, concerns, and energy as earlier films like BLACKBOARD JUNGLE, LOS OLVIDADOS, if...., and many others.  Director Jonathan Kaplan curbs the exploitation elements seen in many of his any other '70s low budgeters but nonetheless provides a vivid, disturbing essay on what happens when this age old problem is ignored and left to its own natural, and cyclical, progression of destruction.

Matt Dillon makes his screen debut as Richie, barely supervised by his single, hippie mother who keeps joints in the ashtray of her jeep. He's a real troublemaker, eager to agitate teachers and the police at every opportunity.  Richie hangs with Carl (Michael Kramer), essentially a good kid whose willingness to please completely disintegrates by the final frame.  Perhaps because his parents are the ones hypnotized. By their furniture and an idea of a utopia in the middle of nowhere.  A flight from the urban scene to an hermetic locale where of course the children will similarly be content and fall in line.   A recipe for disaster.
Screenwriters Tim Hunter, who would later write and direct RIVER'S EDGE, and Charlie S. Haas know the territory.  The attitudes, the generation gap, ever widening.  The planned communities that did not quite plan for restless spirits requiring an outlet.  Somehow, rec centers that resemble Army barracks aren't enough. The dialogue in OVER THE EDGE reflects the frustration perfectly, and is polished yet realistic, much like the performances.  Stereotypes are minimal in this unusually perceptive, influential movie.  Richard Linklater and several others owe quite a debt to OVER THE EDGE, especially its natural, improvisational vibe, like we're just hanging with these kids.  Not a lot may happen for awhile, but the scenario is ripe for an apocalypse, and it comes.
This movie was popular with youngsters (though mostly after its theatrical release) for its electricity and soundtrack (lots of Cheap Trick), but also its honesty. These look and sound like real teens. There were kids like this in my neighborhood, including one who got suspended from elementary school for having cocaine in his shoe.  That same bad seed crashed one of my birthday parties.  He loved to raise hell.  Was it innate?  Was he merely a product of his sketchy home environment? Nature vs. nurture gets some examination here.  But even if the parents spent more time with and took a greater interest in their children, who's to say this scenario wouldn't still happen? I don't know if this movie offers any answers.

As with any feature that showcases bad behavior, some who see the movie may cheer the punkish behavior, just like the kids do in this film as they watch an anti-vandalism movie in one of their classes.  OVER THE EDGE does not endorse but also does not entire condemn the choices the kids make.  The finger is pointed squarely at the adults, the ones too transfixed by their TVs to attend important community meetings,  perhaps the ones truly responsible for the chaos to follow.

In the end, viewers will deem OVER THE EDGE as either a wake up call or the ultimate endorsement for birth control.