REVIEW: Mad Max: Fury Road

13 05 2015

George Miller certainly trusts his audience.  30 years after the last entry in his cult franchise, he throws us into a fully realized dystopian society with little spoon-fed exposition in “Mad Max: Fury Road.”  It’s a nice gear shift in the Marvel Cinematic Universe age, where the minutiae of everything require spelling out in excruciatingly explicit terms.

He also respects his audience, giving them plenty of what they want: high-octane, well-choreographed motorized action.  Miller, no doubt aided by the spectacular lensing of John Seale and the precise editing rhythms of Jason Ballantine, conducts an orchestra of crashing contraptions in the desert sands.  These complex sequences flow effortlessly, and only when the following scene began in silence did I realize how rapidly and loudly Miller made my heart beat.

These thrilling sequences also gain some emotional heft since “Mad Max: Fury Road” gives them actual human stakes within the narrative.  For once, a film does not equate adrenaline with testosterone – “men’s rights” activists be damned.  Despite the character’s name in the title, Tom Hardy’s Max Rockatansky hardly sits in the driver’s seat to guide the film forward.  That honor belongs to Charlize Theron’s Furiosa, a warrior fleeing the tyrannical kingdom to lead several of the leader’s concubines to freedom.

Strength through silence is a fairly common method for males to assert dominance on screen, though it only works partially for Hardy here.  Perhaps my limited knowledge of “Mad Max” lore plays into this, but Max’s ambivalence seems rooted in a lack of character development and background.  Miller doles out flashes of Max’s clairvoyant mental state here and there, although the uninitiated like myself are left to wonder if they are alluding to the past or setting up future installments.

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LISTFUL THINKING: 10 British Actors Who Would Have CRUSHED Harry Potter

12 05 2015

With Eddie Redmayne now in official talks for “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them,” a spinoff of the “Harry Potter” series, I figured now was as good a time as ever to turn a long-gestating list into a published post.  (This has been a note in my iPhone for almost four years now!)

It is easy to forget that the “Harry Potter” series, among its many accomplishments, offered fine roles to a number of talented British thespians.  Pooled together, the cast has amassed 31 Oscar nominations – a number that seems mightly low when you consider the names who graced the eight films.  Kenneth Branagh.  Julie Christie.  Gary Oldman.  Ralph Fiennes.  Maggie Smith.  Emma Thompson.  (Alan Rickman is not included because he has somehow never been nominated for an Oscar.)

Recently, a number of stars have expressed remorse that they were not a part of the series.  Martin Freeman got sad about it with Jimmy Fallon…

…while Eddie Redmayne briefly lamented it before launching into a hilarious story about bombing his audition for “The Hobbit” films.

Redmayne on HP

But just because it did not happen for Redmayne does not mean I cannot imagine a few recastings that incorporates some more talented British actors.  Maybe some roles will have to make cameos in the new trilogy, after all!  And, heaven forbid, Warner Bros. might actually reboot the original books one day.

So, as the title of the list suggests, here are 10 British actors overlooked by the “Harry Potter” casting directors and the roles they could have played brilliantly.

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9 05 2015

On My WayIn Emmanuelle Bercot’s road trip drama “On My Way,” the viewer gets treated to not just one but two separate automotive journeys with Catherine Deneuve’s aging beauty queen Bettie.  Each has its own narrative arc with separate, compartmentalized motivations.  Bercot, working from a script she co-wrote with Jérôme Tonnerre, pivots from the first to the second so suddenly that it takes a while to realize the film has entered a new phase.

The two sections of “On My Way” feel so tenuously connected that Bercot and Tonnerre might as well have Scotch taped them together.  The first section, a short film where Bettie walks out on her responsibilities and duties to find cigarettes (but really a deeper meaning to her life), makes for the kind of pondering philosophical piece rarely thrown to actresses of Deneuve’s age.  Though, to be fair, those kinds of movies scarcely get made anyways.

Then, the bulk of “On My Way” follows Bettie extending her road trip to transport her grandson, born to an estranged daughter, to visit the paternal grandfather.  In this section, which could stand alone as its own curt narrative, Bercot hits all the expected beats of the family drama with little to no surprises up her sleeve.  Nothing ever falls flat, yet the film inspires ambivalence since nothing soars.

“On My Way” essentially provides two movies for the price of one, though the ticket is hardly worth buying unless it’s cheap.  The film’s first thirty minutes of introspection might have been half-decent had they not been followed up by over an hour of a rather standard issue story.  C+2stars

REVIEW: Welcome to Me

8 05 2015

Welcome to MeSeeing as how she got her start on “Saturday Night Live,” Kristen Wiig is certainly no stranger to satire.  While her work on that topical comedy show often brilliantly pointed out human error and ridicule, most of it pales in comparison to her scathingly incisive new film, “Welcome to Me.”  Eliot Laurence’s script cuts deep to probe some of our society’s deepest insecurities and fears.

He pinpoints that these collective anxieties find assuaging in the self-help gospel preached by daytime talk show hosts like Oprah Winfrey.  Take away the free car giveaways, though, and the program really just sold herself as a product.  (Who other than Oprah has ever graced the cover of O Magazine?)  “Welcome to Me” takes this narcissism to its logical extreme, following Wiig’s Alice Klieg as she uses her millions in lottery earnings to mount a show about her, for her.

Her talk show/broadcasted therapy session is not made by her, however.  To get on the air and look impressive, Alice requires the talents of producers at a local television studio.  At Live Alchemy, she finds the perfect blend of dead airspace, crushing company debt, and morally bankrupt executives willing to indulge her every desire.

Led by the slimily obsequious Rich (James Marsden), the station caters to each of Alice’s increasingly bizarre whims, even when they cross the line into literal slander and figurative self-flagellation.  It’s not hard to imagine similar board room meetings taking place at E! debating the Kardashian family.  Alice suffers from a clinically diagnosed personality disorder and manifest her symptoms rather clearly, yet no employee seems willing to protect her from herself so long as the checks keep cashing.  Consider it a less violent first cousin to “Nightcrawler” (or dare I even say, the golden goose that is “Network”).

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F.I.L.M. of the Week (May 7, 2015)

7 05 2015

PoisonIn a matter of days, Todd Haynes will unveil his latest film under the bright lights of the Cannes Film Festival’s red carpet.  Just a quarter of a century ago, however, Haynes operated on the fringes of cinematic culture but emerged onto the indie stage with a bang thanks to “Poison.”  This early Sundance winner sparked what critics often call the New Queer Cinema with its fearless embrace of gay themes and stories.

In a way, “Poison” almost feels like it merits inclusion under the banner of my “Classics Corner” category since the film is such a touchstone for decades of audacious work.  While it assumes the status of a revered cultural object to knowledgable viewers, “Poison” still works as a pick for my “F.I.L.M. of the Week” (which stands for First-Class, Independent Little-Known Movie).  Decades later, this artistic triumph still maintains an edginess and avant-garde aura about it.

Haynes tells three tales in one with “Poison,” each taking place in a different era and involving different characters.  They are not short films, either; he intercuts them with increasing frequency and rapidity once he establishes their tempo.  (Not to be outdone, Haynes would later weave together double the narratives in his unconventional Bob Dylan biopic “I’m Not There.”)  While every section has its own aesthetic and genre styling, too, Haynes does something renegade to disrupt our expectations.

All three threads running through “Poison” circle themes of alienation, repressed identity, violently passionate outbursts, and the lingering stigma of past incidents.  Whether a scientist in a 1950s style pulp film discovering the key to sexuality, a prisoner in the 1910s trying to maintain a masculine facade, or a child in the 1980s only spoken about in vague anecdotes by those left reeling in the wake of his shocking violence, each fascinates with compulsion and repulsion in equal measure.  To say much more spoils the sensation and the surprise, so just know that “Poison” is completely worth swallowing.

REVIEW: While We’re Young

6 05 2015

If you mentioned the phrase “my generation” to people my parents’ age (straddling the Baby Boomer/Generation X boundary), they might start humming that hopelessly catchy song by The Who.  Ask millennials like myself what those two words signal and a combination groan and eye-roll will likely follow.

By this point, I have learned to take bulk criticism of people my age in stride, though biting my tongue on the gloom-and-doom predictions made about us does bother me quite a bit.  So long as there have been independently minded youth, there have been an older vanguard of adults sneering at the perceived ruin brought about by change to the establishment.  The lyrics may change over time, yet the melody remains the same.

While We’re Young,” from writer/director Noah Baumbach, arrives whistling that tired tune fearing the slow-dawning apocalypse of those darned kids these days.  What looked like a fascinating examination of intergenerational differences, rivalries, and friendships wound up playing like a cranky old relative or professor erecting a soapbox for themselves to rant about their monolithic conception of millennials.

Whether a running gag about a younger character not offering to pick up a check or Adam Horovitz’s Fletcher ranting about cell phone dependency, Baumbach barely conceals his personal disdain behind the veneer of his fictional creations.  His stance seems to imply the twentysomethings of today are uniquely self-involved, duplicitous, and dishonorable.  Has he forgotten that the Greatest Generation and the older end of the Baby Boomers said the same things about his cohort?  Rather than let his age provide a vantage point of wisdom on the issues he explores, his advanced years appear only to ensconce his bitterness.

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REVIEW: Merchants of Doubt

5 05 2015

Merchants of DoubtIf the primary purpose of a documentary is to inform the viewer, then Robert Kenner’s “Merchants of Doubt” passes with flying colors.  This blistering look at the semantic tactics used to stifle meaningful action on climate change and other matters of public health serves as a valuable toolkit to become a more critical consumer of the news.  Not content to merely expose hypocrisy, Kenner provides the skills necessary for audiences to go out and see it themselves.

“Merchants of Doubt” begins by answering the when question, starting with the public relations firm Hill and Knowlton used dubiously ethical techniques to convince the American people that tobacco was not harmful or cancerous in the 1950s.  This led to the creation of a “playbook” of sorts that was widely generalizable to other industries facing backlash towards their products from the scientific community.

Be it flame retardants or DDT, casting doubt on scientists – even amidst overwhelming consensus – has proven sadly effective for decades.  The new golden goose of the movement, of course, is climate change and man-made global warming.  Through the exploration of this specific cause célèbre, the why question gets addressed.  It all comes back to preventing government regulation of industry, much of which comes from Soviet-hating Cold Warriors.

“Merchants of Doubt” gets perhaps most infuriating when it explores the who behind the scenes, starkly juxtaposing the intelligent but poorly communicative scientists like James Hansen with the enticing spinsters like Marc Morano.  (The academic side clearly needs a lot more Bill Nye types!) Meanwhile, somewhere in between stands Naomi Oresekes, a historian of science who went through all the research on climate change and found zero dissenting opinions on the issue.  Consensus was not just overwhelming; it was unanimous.

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