MAD MAX: FURY ROAD (2015)
This new installment, 30 years after “Beyond Thunderdome,” of George Miller’s “Mad Max” series might be just as exceptional as the 1979 original or the spectacular 1982 sequel, “The Road Warrior,” but three decades of filmmakers’ unending attempts to top the nonstop explosiveness of those genre-busting movies have dulled the senses.
For the first 40 minutes or so, I was bored, as Miller fills the screen with unpleasant remnants of humans inflicting cruelties of all varieties against the powerless. The computer-generated death and destruction might as well be animated as it bears little resemblance to the laws of physics or the possibilities of the human body.
Even Mad Max (a relentlessly stoic Tom Hardy), the only recognizable human in the fray, and the only one with a sense of self preservation, spurred little interest to me as he was just a tiny piece in a cacophony of crashing metal and fire balls. Until, that is, he comes face to face with five half-dressed, supermodel-thin young women standing alongside a gas tanker. If it wasn’t for the grungy, one-armed, clearly dangerous woman (the real supermodel Charlize Theron) watching over them, it would have looked like Max stumbled onto a Vogue magazine fashion shoot.
Theron’s Furiosa, an unsmiling warrior who has kidnapped the “wives” of the evil leader (Hugh Keays-Byrne, who played Toecutter in the ’79 original) of the Citadel—apparently, the only place with water and technology in this post-apocalyptic region—has steeled herself to take on hundreds of bad guys to get the women to safety in the “green place.”
After initial apprehension, Max joins her crusade and the road battle is on. Now, at least, the script has established a reason for all the mayhem. The film, written by Miller and newcomers Brendan McCarthy and Nick Lathouris, offers some semblance of humanity in its third act, despite the ridiculous survival rate of the good guys as they display near super-hero skills.
“Fury Road” isn’t a bad movie, but it’s far from the jaw-dropping originality that Miller put on screen in his first two “Max” pictures. But maybe that was expecting way too much.
CHIMES AT MIDNIGHT (1965)
Not only did they show virtually every film Welles directed, but brought in New York magazine critic David Edelstein, showing off both his knowledge and insight into Welles’ career as he introduced each movie.
The find of the series—Edelstein proclaimed it Welles’ masterpiece—was a rare showing of “Chimes at Midnight,” the director’s mash-up of five Shakespeare plays, mostly the two-part “Henry IV.” Edelstein was just being a contrarian critic in his over-praise (nothing surpasses “Citizen Kane” or matches, even with its abrupt ending, “The Magnificent Ambersons”), though Welles has called it his favorite and it holds up as one of the best screen versions of Shakespeare.
Like nearly all of Welles’ projects after World War II, “Chimes” was shot over a two-year period in Europe, with actors in and out of the production and much redubbing and long shots using stand-ins. With “Chimes,” along with his other big-screen Shakespeare adaptations, “Macbeth” and “Othello,” Welles demonstrates what a brilliant filmmaker can create without the usual high-priced trappings of Hollywood.
The biggest (in more ways than one) asset of “Chimes at Midnight” is Welles the actor, playing John Falstaff, the rotund, merry-making drinking buddy of the son of King Henry IV, Prince Hal. While the crown comes under threat (Shakespearean stalwart John Gielgud plays the irritable king), Hal and his young friends hang out with Falstaff at a whore house just outside the palace gates.
Falstaff, when not the object of pranks and jokes of those around him, or finagling out of his debt to the mistress of the boarding house (pricelessly played by Margaret Rutherford), offers sarcastic observations about Fifteenth Century England and its leaders. Unfortunately, the poor sound quality of the print combined with Welles’ gravelly baritone renders much of Falstaff’s biting commentary virtually inaudible. It takes close listening to decipher Welles, but it’s worth the effort.
Less effective is Keith Baxter as Hal. This British TV actor, who never had such a prominence role again, captures the fun-loving, roguish aspects of the character but never finds his footing when required to be royal and put aside his “cheap, vulgar company.” It doesn’t help that Gielgud plays his father; Sir John has two or three soliloquies that are simply masterful, including the regretful “Uneasy is the head that wears the crown” speech.
But for every weakness one can find in “Chimes,” Welles’ direction makes up for it. Every shot, every angle, every camera movement are unusual, thoughtful and utilized to advance the story. Few directors are successful at keeping movement going in both the foreground and the background, yet maintain the focus on the central actor—Welles does it continually here. Sometimes, there is so much going on in the frame that you feel as if you are part of it.
The way Welles stages and shoots the Battle of Shrewsbury, a turning point for young Hal, puts modern filmmakers to shame. The crashing of horses, swords and armament, intercut with close-ups of hand-to-hand, muddy, bloody combat, bring the medieval battle alive, exciting and exhilarating without a frame of CGI or even high-quality black-and-white film.
A pristine print of the film was recently discovered and, if ownership disputes can be worked out, may soon be available on DVD. Let’s hope so. Not only because the poor quality of the current print, but shouldn’t one of the great works of one of the greatest American filmmakers be easily available? It’d be as if an acclaimed Hemingway novel was only accessible at one library in the country.
“Chimes at Midnight” serves as another reminder—like all of Welles’ films—that no one has ever been more talented at composing with the camera than Welles, even when, in the second half of his career, he did it with little resources, constant money worries and virtually no support from audiences or fellow filmmakers. He seemed to thrive on being a struggling filmmaker even when he was among the most famous celebrities in the world.
KILL THE MESSENGER (2014)
One of the most fascinating episodes in recent journalism history revolves around San Jose Mercury News reporter Gary Webb and his stories about government involvement in the cocaine trade.
A leaked grand jury report and a cooperative lawyer led Web to the connection between the spread of crack cocaine in the black community in the 1980s and the funding of Nicaraguan Contras by the CIA.
As Webb, Jeremy Renner captures the intense determination and ego that fuels most investigative reporters, while the film chronicles the journalist’s efforts to nail down this controversial story.
It’s in the second half of the film (like the second half of the real-life story) where the story grows baffling. If you believe the movie version—written by former investigative reporter Peter Landesman, working from Webb’s book and a biography by Nick Schou—major newspapers such as the New York Times, Los Angeles Times and the Washington Post, embarrassed by getting beat by a little-known paper, set out to discredit Webb and his story.
Suddenly, big-time reporters believe every denial from the CIA and other assorted sources. The way the story plays in “Kill the Messenger,” the court records that form the basis of Webb’s work are completely ignored by everyone else. While it is true that those papers wrote stories that refuted part of Webb’s story (mostly claims that these drug dealers started the cocaine epidemic in urban America), I cannot believe that mainstream media bent over backward, as implied in the film, to clear the Reagan administration of wrong doing. There isn’t a newspaper editor or reporter alive who would cover up a story like this just because they didn’t get it first.
Sadly, though, the attacks against Webb eventually caused his own paper to cower to the pressure and backtrack on his story, all but pushing Webb out of the business.
Despite my skepticism about parts of the script, the film is compelling from start to finish. Director Michael Cuesta, who previously made the controversial 2001 movie about pedophilia, “L.I.E.,” brings a passion to the film that helps make up for the somewhat lack of drama in the story.
And the director could not have found a better Webb than Renner, who never lets his character slip into the clichés of a movie newspaper reporter. Since his sensational breakout film, “The Hurt Locker” (2008), he’s brought his scene-stealing intensity to “The Town” (2010), “Mission: Impossible—Ghost Protocol” (2011), “The Immigrant” (2013) and, best of all, “American Hustle” (2013).
In “Kill the Messenger,” Renner focuses on the humanity of this reporter, and his conviction that he has uncovered the story of his career, even after his profession stops supporting him.
FAR FROM THE MADDING CROWD (2015)
The sweeping romanticism and its connection to the land, to nature, in all its harshness, beauty and quiet inevitability has rarely been captured as well as Thomas Hardy did in his 1874 novel, “Far From the Madding Crowd.” While a superb film version was directed by John Schlesinger in 1967, featuring memorable performances by Julie Christie and Alan Bates, that was nearly 50 years ago. I don’t know if there is much of an audience today for a period romance set in England’s farm life, circa 1860, but you couldn’t ask for a better made, better acted version of this classic tale or one that feels so timeless.
Carey Mulligan, of “An Education” and “The Great Gatsby” fame, plays Bathsheba Everdene, a feisty, independent young woman who refuses to follow the ground rules for her gender in Victorian England. As Mulligan wisely plays her, she’s not a prude or unmoved by romantic attention, but has bigger plans and will not surrender easily. Bathsheba is cut from the same cloth as a Jane Austin heroine.
After refusing the marriage offer from an attractive and dependable landowner living next to her aunt’s farm, she inherits her uncle farm in another community and heads off to run it alone. Typical of novels of the period, coincidence plays a big part in the story as Gabriel Oak (the charismatic Belgium actor Matthias Schoenaerts), the rejected farmer, arrives at her new estate just as she’s ready to take over. While putting his romantic aspirations aside, he becomes her trusted confident and loyal worker.
As she becomes a success, much to the surprise of the local businessmen, she attracts the interest of the town’s richest man, Mr. Boldwood (Michael Sheen), who falls desperately in love with her. At the same time, a reckless, bad-boy soldier (Tom Sturridge) with a tainted past shows up in her life.
Danish director Thomas Vinterburg, who recently made the compelling “The Hunt,” along with stunning cinematograph by Charlotte Bruus Christensen and superb editing by Claire Simpson (I don’t mention editors enough; she is among the finest in film today, with an Oscar for “Platoon” and memorable work in “Salvador,” “The Reader,” “The Constant Gardener” and last year’s “A Most Wanted Man”), has delivered a beautifully paced, first-class production of Bathsheba’s story. The script by David Nicholls, who previously tackled Hardy in a television miniseries of “Tess of the D’Urbervilles,” gives each of the four major characters a strong presence while the land remains the guiding force. (Though, unless my Sunday school teachers were mistaken, I think they mispronounce Bathsheba throughout the film.)
Mulligan offers another quietly commanding performance, making the viewer believe in her sincere desire to be independent while never shutting down her emotions or becoming strident. She is so reserved that when she is truly hurt or happy or in love it resonates with great drama.
Schoenaerts has the makings of a major star (previously, his best known work was opposite Marion Cotillard in “Rust and Bone”); his Oak is as sturdy as his name implies while matching Mulligan’s implied emotions.
While most of the trappings and morals of this period are completely alien to 2015, the struggle by women to be individuals apart from a marriage or partnership remains a real issue, as does the timeless search for true love. Turns out the human heart hasn’t changed that much in the past 150 years.
BIG EYES (2014)
The story of the Keanes and the paintings of big-eyed children that became the rage of the day is one of the most fascinating stories of its era, emblematic of the view, still strong in the 1950s and early 60s, that women were inevitably secondary to their husbands. Yet Tim Burton’s film never takes off, never settles on a tone and never rises above its rather straight-forward, docudrama narrative.
The casting could not have been better. Amy Adams and Christoph Waltz play this dysfunctional couple, Margaret and Walter, exactly as one could imagine their relationship. Margaret is looking for stability after leaving her husband and arriving in San Francisco with her young child and only her painting skills to support them. Walter is an unimpressive painter of Paris street scenes who is quickly revealed as, at the least, a braggart and liar; at worst, a con man.
While it’s not clear in the film if he intended on taking credit for her marbled-eyed little girls, but after hustling to get them seen, he does. Margaret, still a bit timid, passes on an early chance to correct the misunderstanding, acquiescing to the fraud, even by locking her studio to her daughter).
Quickly these kitschy (and disturbing, I always thought) paintings become the Thomas Kincaids of the era and the money rolls in. Margaret grows more frustrated by her husband’s ego and his obsession with keeping the truth hidden, eventually running off again and finally attempting to reclaim her artistic credit.
Adams and Waltz dominate the film, but a couple of supporting players stand out; Danny Huston as a gossip columnist who helps promote the paintings and Terence Stamp, the imposing British actor, as a New York Times art critic who calls them trash.
The problem with the film, directed without his usual flair by Burton, is that nothing very surprising happens after the initial set up. After Walter takes credit, and makes it clear to his wife that they must stick to that story, the film becomes of series of frustrating moments in which Margaret gets pushed further out of the picture. You know eventually his comeuppance will arrive, but even that doesn’t come off as very satisfying. The script by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, the pair who penned Burton’s best film “Ed Wood,” never digs beneath the skin of these two art-world misfits, leaving too much for the viewer to surmise, too little to be surprised by.
THE GOLDEN COACH (1952) and FRENCH CANCAN (1954)
By 1950, Jean Renoir, the most accomplished French filmmaker of his time, was considered a cinematic relic. After directing masterpiece after masterpiece in the 1930s, including “Grand Illusion,” “Le Bete Humaine,” “Rules of the Game,” the Nazi takeover of France forced him to abandon his homeland, relocating in Hollywood.
While welcomed as foreign royalty, Renoir achieved only moderate success in America. Even his best U.S. pictures—“The Southerner,” “The Diary of a Chambermaid”—were interesting primarily because his name was on the credits.
He reclaimed some of his acclaim with the “The River,” a picturesque, documentary-like look at colonial India, shot on location along the Ganges. It’s sincere and heartfelt, but not much of a movie.
He followed with two lightweight amusements, “The Golden Coach” and “French Cancan,” that did nothing for his reputation. Yet, in retrospect, these films represent the best work he’d done since the 1930s; both films are colorful, delightful films about the joy of performing on stage and entertaining the masses.
In “The Golden Coach,” the flamboyant Italian actress Anna Magnani plays Camilla, a star of a traveling company of performers who arrive in Eighteenth Century Peru to perform. The thin line between the stage and reality is smudged by Renoir as he begins the film by opening the curtain on a set and what seems like a stage-bound performance. But quickly the film shifts to a realistic presentation, even as it remains theatrical in spirit.
The plot revolves around a roguish Viceroy (Duncan Lamont), who has indulged himself with a purchased of a golden coach, using it to win over Camilla. Also vying for her “hand” is an elegant bullfighter (Riccardo Rioli) and Spaniard accompanying the acting troupe (Paul Campbell). It’s one of those international productions in which it is hard to tell if actors are speaking English or were dubbed later, but it doesn’t diminish the film.
Claude Renoir, the director’s nephew, does superb work as the film’s cinematographer, equaling his work on “The River.”
Two years later, the director made “French Cancan,” a wonderfully constructed entertainment telling a fictional version of the creation in 1889 of the famed Moulin Rouge nightclub in Paris (still a tourist attraction today). The club revived cancan dancing that had been popular earlier in the Ninteenth Century. It was also Renoir’s return to France after more than a decade.
Jean Gabin, who starred in Renoir’s “Grand Illusion” and reigned as France’s greatest actor, plays Henri Danglard, a suave restaurateur who seems to be always on the verge of bankruptcy. Then he meets Nini (Francoise Arnoul), a young amateur dancer who inspires him to revisit the cancan tradition and build a nightclub around it.
The film’s colorful dancing—the Vincente Minnelli-influenced finale celebrating the club’s opening must be 20 minutes of dozens of twirling dancing girls--along with the carefree romantic entanglements of Henri keep the film engaging from start to finish. The movie is also refreshingly frank in it approach to sex. Henri’s affair with the headstrong Lola (Maria Felix), who is married to his chief financier, and then his indulgences with the much younger Nini are presented without judgment. At that time, in an American film, his character would have faced some type of punishment for his philandering.
After these two gems, Renoir never regained his footing, making three more undistinguished features, the last in 1962 when the legendary director was just 68. Yet, through his work in 1930s and his return to form in the 1950s, he remains one of the influential filmmakers to ever work in the cinema.
WILD TALES (2014)
While most of the current comedies cranked out by Hollywood display the subtlety and wit of a frat house prank, movies featuring thoughtful, ironic, adventurous humor still can be found in other languages. One of the most biting I’ve seen in awhile was this collection of six short tales from Argentine writer-director Damián Szifron.
Relentlessly dark and cynical, the stories stick a pin in the idea of winners and losers; life’s randomness and unexpected turns can quickly turn any of us into a foolish victim or raging crazy. The picture was among last year’s Oscar nominees for foreign film.
The opening story unfolds beautifully, as passengers on an airline slowly realize that they are all connected to (and treated badly) a wannabe music composer. It plays out like a clever comic sketch until the tale turns into a revenge wish-fulfillment of psychotic dimensions—all in about five minutes.
The other stories follow in kind: a waitress also seeking revenge against a ruthless gangster; the disastrous consequences of a towed car; a road rage incident in the extreme that ends with the two drivers linked forever; and an attempt by a rich family to spare their son jail time. Each are impeccably constructed, flawlessly acted morality tales that not only entertain but force viewers to recognize the often unintended results of what seemed like the right thing to do.
Szifron, best known south of the border for his TV series “Hermanos y detectives,” ends the collection with a loud, messy telling of a couple’s wedding, which turns into a battle royal of sex, food and in-laws. Unlike the characters in previous episodes, this pair finds compromising a worthy alternative to a fight to the death. That, it seems, is Szifron’s point, even if it’s not as satisfying as the rush of a well-planned revenge.