Monthly Archives: May 2015

The Seven Five — 6/10

THE SEVEN FIVE (2015, Tiller Russell)

A lot of narrative features based on true stories are so disappointing you wish they would be documentaries. Here’s a documentary you wish would be a narrative feature. Not that Russell’s doc can’t stand on its own, but the tale is gripping enough that it could be aestheticized with some more imagery other than talking heads and stock footage.

Still, as a portrait of corruption in the NYPD, it’s engaging and fun to follow. And like most movies of this type (and one of its flaws is that it’s derivative of so many other genre films in cinema history), it seduces you with the glamor of crime at first, it has a colorful villain (Diaz is the MVP), and then twists the knife to show its downfall. But aside from a few jump cuts and Scorsese-inspired freeze frames, there isn’t a lot here we haven’t seen before, even if the specifics are new. It does keep one plot point a secret, but more of that kind of intrusion and playfulness with form might have turned a decent doc into a really good one.

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Mad Max: Fury Road — 9/10

MAD MAX: FURY ROAD (2015, George Miller)

“What are you doing?”

“Praying.”

“To whom?”

“Anyone who will listen.”

And that’s one of the longest dialogue exchanges in FURY ROAD, which is almost all action and zero exposition. People don’t stand around like windbags. Death is whimsical and pervasive, and every minute counts. Punch the pedal, and don’t let up. But it’s a dialogue exchange that encapsulates the film’s dominating philosophies — its world is godless and desperate, and survival is the primary motivation for everything. That kind of existentialism is mirrored in the film’s greatest single image, which involves Charlize Theron’s Furiosa dropping to her knees in profile, despondent in a hostile terrain, surrounded by nothing but desert, air, and rock — and as she cries in futility, the wind blows grains of sand past her sobbing body, burned by harsh sun that cares not one whiff about humanity.

So yeah, that’s all well and good and it’s nice to talk about the profound subtext of this movie, but let’s face it — first and foremost, this is one mean, aggressive, balls-out, apeshit nightmare, loaded with looney details, bananas action, berserk characters, and a pace so frantic that it can only have a title with the words Mad and Fury in it.

Structured quite elegantly with three cleanly divided acts, Miller’s bug-eyed vision is both easy to follow and impossible to keep up with. Just as your brain is catching up with what you actually just saw, something else sails through the screen with screaming intensity and you need to put the pieces together before the next can’t-miss nugget of info. Sometimes, the insanity is explained (e.g. the smiley faces on Nux’s boils, the breast milk factory, the pregnant girl underneath the truck) and sometimes it’s just part of the tapestry (a pint-sized wheezing demon, Furiosa’s missing arm, a guy who does nothing but play guitar on the back of a war truck). But whatever it is, every frame of this film is packed with the breathless immediacy of a director who has the age and experience to know what works on film, yet the youthful soul of a rookie who acts like he may never have the chance to work in cinema ever again.

There isn’t a single element of FURY ROAD that doesn’t throb with that hunger — take the war rig, which snarls with oil and gasoline, and drools sand from its ornaments; or the pole vaults attached to trucks that can catapult a warrior onto the rig; or the dreadful imagery Max continues to hallucinate, involving a creepy girl and some screams. It’s hard to tear your eyeballs from the screen long enough to blink, because holy shit look at that. If there’s any flaw at all, it’s in the monotony of this grim future — the tone of the film is beautifully consistent: it’s dark, violent, hopeless, and leavened with the perfect dose of humor. But the movie is a two hour-long punishing submersion into it. That’s admirable, but maybe a little much. Still, it’s never repetitive — there’s a propulsive wonder about what transpires here from moment to moment, and it’s ushered along brilliantly by star Theron, who is going to be hard to beat at the end of the year in Best Actress talks. Hardy is no slouch either, even if his Max is a surprising second fiddle. His faces tell the story and it’s a pleasure to watch him experience this ride. Editing, score, photography, and production design are all peerless. See this on the big screen, and don’t fret that this summer’s (or last summer’s, or the summer before that) action films can’t live up to the mastery Miller brings to the table. Because really, very few movies of this scale ever have.

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About Elly — 7/10

ABOUT ELLY (2009, Asghar Farhadi)

If you had told me ABOUT ELLY was Farhadi’s most recent film, I’d believe it and be happy he’s improved his writing from the at-times overly schematic and contrived scripts of A SEPARATION and THE PAST. But I’d also be curious why his compositional confidence from THE PAST disappeared for this one. So when you realize this new stateside release was unearthed from 2009, it both makes sense and doesn’t at all.

As a story engine, this thing hums — it’s compelling in the first act, before anything of consequence even happens. But once the frantic search in the sea occurs (the best and most gripping sequence in the movie), it roars into another gear that keeps you laser-focused the rest of the way. And the performances are outstanding — Golshifteh Farahani is marvelous as Sepideh, the ostensible protagonist who’s responsible for most of the trouble; and if she’s not, people sure make her feel like she is. The rest of the cast is smart and keyed into the fact that for Farhadi’s moralistic movie to work, we need to believe why people lie, the extent to which they lie to some people and tell the truth to others, and what it does to characters and relationships when the consequences of those lies surface. Perhaps the commentary about gender roles in Persian culture is obvious and self-serving, but it’s never too heavy-handed and I for one learned more about the Iranian middle class than I ever expected to. There may be another layer of political commentary here (the opening shot is of a ballot box, and several scenes involve the group voting on a solution — and often disintegrating into chaos when group-think leads to terrible decisions), but I’m too ignorant of Iran to say anything meaningful about it.

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Avengers: Age of Ultron — 5/10

AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON (2015, Joss Whedon)

There’s only one name in the credits of the AVENGERS movies for screenwriter and director, but somehow they don’t feel like the sole personal vision of Joss Whedon, or any one person. Even more than the first installment (which was itself the sixth episode in Marvel’s theatrical TV series), AGE OF ULTRON feels like the product of a conglomerate; it’s a loud, messy, chugging, smoke-belching cacophony of computerized dust and foley effects. Whedon is the man who nearly killed himself making this monstrosity, and his sweat is on every frame of the movie: two hours and twenty minutes of hard work, aching with effort and sore muscles, endless rounds of notes and fixes, and compromises galore — but it’s the powerful odor of Franchise Stability that turns it into something impersonal and ultimately forgettable. Box office aside (which will indeed be gargantuan), this may be the biggest movie in history — it has the most shit happening for the most time, yet it’s only good when it slows down. Which isn’t often enough.

Paradoxically, AGE OF ULTRON feels too long at 141 minutes, but might have felt shorter (and a lot better) at three and a half hours. Overstuffed with plot to the point where I’m not even going to bother getting into it (at least they never say “tesseract” in it), it’s a piñata whose bat is a budget; whose candy is lights, colors, and exploding dirt; and whose birthday party is a comic book. If only it took the time to investigate its themes, it could have been more coherent and less like a headache-inducing Cuisinart. Because when its characters are just hanging out, it’s a funny and wholly endearing film. Downey has been the star of this franchise since its inception in 2008, but Chris Hemsworth wrestles the crown away in this one. The scarcely hidden anxiety on Thor’s face as he fears that Rogers might be able to lift the hammer is priceless, as is his petulant last-word greed in saying “But Jane’s better.” It seems Whedon has more fun when the stakes are low; the beats are allowed to breathe (even the charmless Jeremy Renner manages some good moments) and the actors get to use their faces instead of green screens.

Unfortunately, the stakes get high for most of this metal-clanging amusement park ride. As usual, no less than the fate of the human race is on the line, as entire cities are destroyed, massive ships ruin massive buildings, and the very fact of what it means to be a hero is questioned. This means chases and explosions, flames and robots, arrows and guns, swinging hammers and green fists. You’d think the best fights would be heroes vs. villains, but the best fight in this movie is Hulk vs. Iron Man.

And for most of the movie, Hulk is saddled with a botched romance with Natasha, completely pointless, sexless, and irritating. James Spader is having a blast as Ultron because he knows the tone this movie should take — but Ruffalo still thinks he’s in FOXCATCHER, and Johansson is at the mercy of a story that doesn’t know what to do with her. Also, what kind of a dick is Stark that he gives Don Cheadle an Iron Man suit but won’t even give Nat so much as a bullet proof vest? Same goes for Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Elizabeth Olsen, and Renner — they could all use a little armor, right? Thanks, Tony.

AGE OF ULTRON is a curious beast: it’s a massive, massive experience, raising the bar to unheard-of heights for all things blockbuster. Nothing has had more effects, more noise, more characters, more plot, more stakes, or more muscle. Even Michael Bay has to take his hat off. But when you take the heavy 3-D glasses off your bruised nose and emerge from the theater into the piercing sunlight of the real world, you don’t feel like you’ve been challenged to contemplate humanity, villainy, artificial intelligence, heroism, technology, or good will; you’ve been grabbed by a giant green monster, picked up by your ankles, thrown back and forth until you’ve nearly been given a concussion, and then been told that because you ate popcorn and saw a colorful light show, you had a good time. That’s not necessarily my idea of fun. I don’t need to see another AVENGERS movie. I just need some peace and quiet, and a drink.

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