Friday, May 29, 2015

Hellfire and Electric Guitar in Mad Max: Fury Road: A High-Octane Phantasmagoria of Mayhem

Movie Review: Mad Max: Fury Road

Director: George Miller

Reviewed: 29 May 2015

jamesintexas rating--***1/2

With eye-popping action, an unnatural bright color palette, and nearly relentless action, George Miller's Mad Max: Fury Road delivers a two hour shot of adrenaline to the heart with unforgettable visuals and undeniable effect. The movie starts with a chase and basically maintains it for its entire running length. What Miller does here is all the more incredible because of its weight; the film feels dangerous in its depiction of this desert wasteland world of kill or be killed. The special effects enhance the film, the score pounds the brain, and the lead performances are nearly silent as action becomes the order of the day. Pure, exhilarating action.

Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron) escorts a convoy from the tightly controlled sanctuary of the ruler Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne), a mask-wearing madman who doles out the water sparingly to the hordes of impoverished who live at the foot of the cliff. Furiosa's task is initially a supply run for gasoline and bullets, the lifeblood of this culture, but when things go awry, Immortan Joe and his crew of loyal foot soldiers must race to find her. And they bring recently captured universal donor Max Rockatansky (Tom Hardy), strapped to the front of Nux's (Nicholas Hoult) dirt race car like some bizarre hood ornament. As Max struggles to free himself in the struggle, Furiosa harbors desires of rebellion and even finding sanctuary in a land through the desert, but the chase is on with deadly, metal-bending consequences when everyone collides. And, there's a chained guy with no eyes who jams wildly on an electric guitar which spews fire at the front of one of the pursuers. Awesome.

The chase really does unfold for the entire two hours. I really like the forward momentum of this film as well as its look. Strange to say, the weakest link here is Hardy's performance as the nearly nonverbal Max, mumbling his few lines in a marble mouthed way that seems akin to his work as Bane several years ago. Hardy's voice seems enhanced, perhaps made even deeper, but the movie belong to Charlize Theron as Furiosa, who delivers a topnotch performance of movement and intensity, doing more with less, consumed with the mechanics of driving a big rig across the desert. The film works best when the two leads are repelling attackers, creatively repairing the vehicles, rushing across frightening landscapes to catch the vehicle before being left behind. The baddies are quite bad, with plenty of leering looks and eye-catching make-up in addition to bones strapped to the hoods of cars, deathly pale complexions, and a million variations on souped-up cars and motorcycles. At one point, the rig is being stalked by leaping motorcycles which just as likely could have been horses leaping up in the air behind them, a forgotten tribe of nomadic warriors that materialize out of thin air with deadly intent.

Miller's world-building in Mad Max: Fury Road is so strong, a sign of how long he has worked with this character and nihilistic, apocalyptic concept, yet it still feels fresh. Characters stare at what we believe to be falling stars and remark upon them as being satellites falling to earth, an older way of sending information back and forth that seems alien to this time and place. I think a fear of mine in seeing a reboot (or a re-conception) of an existing character and world would be the feeling of being tied down to particular plot points or storytelling tropes, and to me, Miller avoids this completely. He has made a different Mad Max movie than the previous three with Mel Gibson, and instead, he's injected creativity and uniqueness to a story that I thought would be familiar. In a most exciting turn of events, there is an inclusivity to the film's gender politics that worked for me and felt remarkably fresh. I take the title to be a knowing nod to the shared top billing of both Max and Furiosa. To be honest, Theron's character and volcanic performance owns the entire film!

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

The Babadook's Horrors: A Unique and Terrifying Masterpiece.

Movie Review: The Babadook

Director: Jennifer Kent

Reviewed: 20 May 2015

jamesintexas rating--****

I don't think I can ask for much more than the sleek, terrifying, ninety-three minute long film The Babadook: it captivates and moves at a quick pace through very dark material, offering genuine scares and chills with its fresh ideas. Amelia, a young mother (Essie Davis), struggles after losing her husband in a car accident while driving to the hospital to deliver their son Samuel. Flash forward ahead, Samuel grows up into the precocious, slightly dangerous, and often annoying six-year-old who creates dangerous devices, studies old magic tricks, and makes life increasingly difficult for his mom. The eponymous creature of the title appears via a mysterious children's book that neither remembers buying, but once Amelia starts reading The Babadook to Samuel, it is obviously not appropriate with its violent imagery, threatening pronouncements, its character's long, sharp knives for fingers, outstretched and reaching. Things go from bad to worse, as you can imagine, and the book that cannot be destroyed becomes an omnipresent force in their decaying, rotting house as both mother and son fight for their lives and souls.

There's much to like here. Davis is a revelation as the embattled, exhausted Amelia, fighting herself as much as any outside force. She inhabits both the chippy, faux-cheerful Amelia who tries to fit in at her affluent sister's house party, while also showing the world-weariness of being a caretaker at a retirement home during the day. It is Kent's point to show Amelia being stretched by both work and home, serving as caretaker to all and neglecting herself. The horror comes in bursts with a slow, building intensity, and Kent is wise to use darkness and effects sparingly. I watched the film in three longer chunks, which probably lessens the hold that it had over me, and I was thankful for that. I think that even its lean running time would have had me completely worn out at the end of one sitting.

What scares me? Sharks that can see my entire body while I can only imagine them during dips in the ocean. People in masks with dark intent. Clowns talking to children through sewer grates (thanks, Stephen King), and things that are otherwise incongruous and strange. And a children's book that seems to come alive amidst the isolation of this parent trying to do it all alone is now added to that list. The Babadook should not be as effective and as scary as it is, but Jennifer Kent's work is a masterpiece of sound architecture with its otherworldly whirls and clicks, special effects that seem more sleight-of-hand or magic-like than CGI (except for one sequence), a tour-de-force performance from the great Essie Davis as well as a brilliant child performance from Noah Wiseman, a steady pace which keeps building, and a very strong ending that resonates far after the last frame stops. It is different than the standard horror film; it more closely resembles Take Shelter, the 2011 Jeff Nichols film which featured Michael Shannon as a father trying to protect his family from oblivion (or just his growing mental illness). I think that The Babadook should continue to get more attention and viewers, as its ideas and world-building indicate a thoughtful and daring new vision from director Jennifer Kent. Bravo.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

A Californian-Iranian-Vampire Film: Watching A Girl Walks Home...

Movie Review: A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night

Director: Ana Lily Amirpour

Reviewed: 12 May 2015

jamesintexas rating--***

A purported Iranian vampire movie set in the fictional wasteland of Bad City but actually filmed in California, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night is Ana Lily Amirpour's gorgeous black and white, hypnotic take on a modern telling of the ancient story. The Girl (Sheila Vand) stalks the denizens of Bad City as a sort of angel of death and spiritual guide, appearing in their paths late at night, shrouded in her chador, occasionally riding a skateboard. The film chronicles her interactions with a pimp, a drug addict, that man's son Arash (Arash Marandi), a little boy, and a prostitute. Amirpour's aesthetic decisions focus on the shadows, leaving people out of focus within a shot, alongside luminous black and white shots with trance-like music and long takes create a sense of building dread throughout the film. The less detail that is given, the more curious I became.

The Girl offers warnings to those around her, and her interactions with Arash appear to change her somewhat. They form a connection, an alliance of sorts, which leads to all sorts of consequences for both of them. The film is heavy on its mood and atmosphere, with nearly all of its running time occurring at night. The cuts to the oilfields with derricks steadily drilling are meant to parallel the sucking of blood, and the whole transplanting of the setting is interesting and spooky. The image of The Girl riding a skateboard with her cape-like chador flapping all around her is one that will not leave me easily. There is something disturbing about how unassuming and small The Girl is while also being completely in control and menacing. There is a haunting sadness to her relationship with Arash, particularly, one that Amirpour hints is vaguely incestuous.

The film made me deeply curious as well, and the coming together of so many styles in a vampire film is quite fun. A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night feels like a western at times with its empty streets and nightly showdowns. There are elements of horror that work quite well because of the suspense and the sense of restraint. Amirpour's eye for capturing an image is keen and thoughtful; I look forward to seeing more work from this emerging artist.

Saturday, May 9, 2015

300: Rise of an Empire is Good, Trashy Fun

Movie Review: 300: Rise of an Empire

Director: Noam Murro

Reviewed: 3 May 2015

jamesintexas rating--***

Bloody, trashy fun. This quasi-sequel to 300 offers an alternate view of the Athenian army while the Spartans are making their desperate stand at Thermopylae. Here, the fighting is on ships that threaten to engulf Greece unless a stand is made, resulting in some fantastic water battles and the occasional sea serpent. The result is a live-action cartoon of sorts with spraying blood, epic violence, scenery-chewing speeches, and a bunch of fun. There's not much to think about here, but the film seems to be enjoying itself immensely.

Themistokles (Sullivan Stapleton, kind of bland) leads his warriors against the Persian warrior Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro, shiny), son of slain King Darius and his fighting force led by Artemisia (Eva Green, wonderful). There are some platitudes offered about democracy, which is strange since the fighters seem to slavishly devoted to fascism. But mostly it is just an excuse for giant battle sequences and nifty swordplay.

The effects are pretty wonderful with swirling colors and the trademark slow-down, speed-up fighting that we have come to expect from a 300 movie. There's no Gerard Butler or Michael Fassbender, really, beyond a few still shots, so this could probably be best categorized as a sideways sequel like that last Jason Bourne movie. It seems to revel in its storytelling, but try as he might, Sullivan Stapleton just lacks some of the charisma of a Gerard Butler, so he cannot pull off the growly gravitas needed to deliver a line like "an unbreakable bond made stronger by the crucible of combat." But he tries his best. The revelation here is Eva Green's go-for-broke histrionic performance as Artemisia, a skilled warrior who fights from the front and stands toe-to-toe with all of the men, serving as a kind of Lady Macbeth pouring her spirits into Xerxes's ear while simultaneously seducing and attempting to recruit Themistokles. The scenes of Artemisia in command are quite fun, and the film moves at a steady brisk clip. 102 minutes is probably just about the right amount of time to spend in this world. The ending seems to set up a third film which I hope gets made because it is clear that the filmmakers are having fun in this world and could show us even more bloody insanity with some fearless over-the-top performances.

Brutal and Sad: Lone Survivor's Tale of Terror.

Movie Review: Lone Survivor

Director: Peter Berg

Reviewed: 4 May 2015

jamesintexas rating--***

There are one or two moments in Lone Survivor that seem to pull back from its microscopic focus on four Navy Seals trapped in enemy territory on an Afghanistan mountainside, fighting for their lives. It's the home base where troops and back-up are at the ready. Instead of being able to immediately fly to the aid of their trapped comrades, director Peter Berg shows the bureaucracy of the fighting force, where gunships are unable to accompany the Blackhawks to the hot zone to aid the men. The implication is that the US was fighting a deadly war with a force that was stretched too thin, and some of the deadly consequences in this film from the four men to the botched rescue mission are implied rather than overtly stated. It is difficult to make a film honoring these men while simultaneously denigrating the leadership that tried to do this war cheaply. The film made me think of something General Colin Powell said: "War should be the politics of last resort. And when we go to war, we should have a purpose that our people understand and support." I am still not sure that we had that purpose, but the film concretizes the heroic nature of the brutal conditions and violence these Seals were placed within during a time of "last resort," and I think the film successfully captures this firefight in all of its upsetting emotion.

Peter Berg's focus is on the band of brothers, the camaraderie and selflessness of the men in the battle, and it becomes a painful watch. Almost immediately. The title (and history) lets us know what is going to happen, so we become engrossed in the how of it all and the way the situation rapidly spirals out of control. Marcus Luttrell (Mark Wahlberg), Michael Murphy (Taylor Kitsch), Danny Dietz (Emile Hirsch), and Matt "Axe" Axelson (Ben Foster) are dropped into Afghanistan on a covert operation to eliminate a major Taliban leader. The men welcome the opportunity to be useful and put their grueling training to the test, and soon enough, all four men are hidden away on an Afghanistan mountainside, trying to get radio contact amidst the jagged peaks, evading the wandering goat herders who threaten to reveal their position. Berg's filmmaking is at its best when he uses tracking shots in the forest, just showing the meticulous, careful actions of these men before and after it all breaks down. The camera is always clear about what these men want, how they are executing the mission, and after a moral conundrum, how they make the best of a bad situation. Much of the acting is truly action, with faces and eyes becoming important conduits for the storytelling. All four lead performances had an impact on me, with standouts being Kitsch and Foster. It eventually disintegrates into an almost nonverbal silent type of communication with the Seals enduring the worst kinds of hell as they desperately try to get to an extraction point.

A war movie by its nature can be exhilarating, but I found Lone Survivor to be draining. The punishing retreat of these Seals and the bloody disintegration of their fighting force is meant to honor what actually happened, but I cannot help but try to root for the facts to change. The impotence of their force against so many results in it just being jaw-dropping that anyone survived. The film commits to honoring these men and their sacrifice and is at its best when depicting the camaraderie and brotherhood of the four Seals who know that they must put their lives in each others hands. The film is less successful at depicting the village that harbors Luttrell and protects him against the Taliban, content to play with some basic iconography of a near-silent innocent child taking care of him. The rescue scenes offers a bit of a catharsis of sorts for the audience, but overall, Lone Survivor is a sobering film about the war that ends in Berg's choice to elegiacally honor the real-life Seals through photographs set against Peter Gabriel's cover of David Bowie's "Heroes." It is difficult not to wonder what lives these men, all of these men, would have continued to have. What children they would have raised, what husbands, boyfriends, and partners they would have been.

The phrase ultimate sacrifice is not one to be used lightly.

Saturday, May 2, 2015

Dom Hemingway: All Style, No Substance.

Movie Review: Dom Hemingway

Director: Richard Shepard

Reviewed: 2 May 2015

jamesintexas rating--**

First of all, I like Jude Law. I like seeing him play the pugnacious, incarcerated, foul-mouthed, and eponymous Dom Hemingway, a small-time safecracker who has just been released from twelve years of prison and is trying to find his way. Law's spitfire soliloquies and confident cadence amplify Dom's lust for life outside of the walls of prison but also reflect a sort of world weariness. Dom's a bit too old for how he dresses, a bit too paunchy to go without his shirt for so long, and a bit too impulsive to fit in the modern world. Dom's also estranged from his daughter whom he left alone with her dying mother at age twelve and also struggling to make sense of what he is owed by fellow gangsters for keeping his mouth shut for twelve years, at obvious great cost to his family.

Second of all, director Richard Shepard is having fun with the storytelling here: punchy title cards as chapter breaks, occasional slow-motion sequences set to booming British tunes, the always wonderful Richard E. Grant playing Dom's be-handed sidekick and fellow gangster Dickie Black; and motor mouthed and intensely foul dialogue spouted out by club-owning underworld characters.

Third of all, Shepard seems to be reveling in the low-rent, less glamorous side of British crime in the vein of Guy Ritchie and others, making sure that we see and smell how depraved and petty this world can be. There are celebrations but coupled with deep hangovers, and Dom's search for himself involves returning to his daughter and finding out who he can become in the future.


Scenes and set pieces go on far too long, and I ultimately felt, even with the fun chapter breaks, the film to be shapeless and a bit bizarre. A steadier hand may have excised some of the plot and some of the meandering, and the last thirty minutes segues deeply into Dom's relationship with his daughter and grandson, though it seems to be more interested in symbolic reconciliation rather than actual character development.

The friendship between Dom and Dickie is left largely unexplored, though Richard E. Grant's thousand-yard stare and yellow-tinted glasses hint at a sordid, silly past of mayhem between the two men. Major violent acts are committed without consequences or repercussions in a world where, seemingly, blood will have blood.

And the film ultimately seems like a series of vignettes and Dom more of a caricature rather than a fully-developed character. No fault of Jude Law's though because Law delivers a swaggering, volcanic performance as Dom, but I wonder if the adventures of Dom Hemingway might have made for a more interesting character study with more time to develop. Perhaps the character deserved a 12 episode run on HBO or a longer film than its scant 93 minute length?

Call it Edge of Tomorrow or Live Die Repeat: Either way, Cruise Delivers

Movie Review: Edge of Tomorrow

Director: Doug Liman

Reviewed: 18 March 2015

jamesintexas rating--***

Edge of Tomorrow, Tom Cruise's latest film, is a fun, rollicking video game of a ride through a cool premise: It's classic Tom Cruise action wrapped up in Groundhog Day and spliced with Aliens, and it all works. It all works due to a marvelous cast, a central conceit that is straight-up fun, and a tone that allows the audience to revel in the storytelling and video game qualities of a feature film with a gigantic budget.

Cruise plays Cage, an Army Public Relations officer, who finds himself on the front lines of battle between the earth and alien sentient Matrix-like creatures. Early on, it becomes apparent that as punishments of some sort, Cage must enter the ranks of the infantry as they prepare a D-Day like assault on alien-held territory. Rita (Emily Blunt) holds the position of being the most decorated and distinguished soldier of the era, and Cage finds himself alongside her in the bloody, chaotic battle scene. When the tide of the battle turns, and Cage is destroyed, we gasp as an audience (Who kills Tom Cruise in the first twenty minutes?) and then realize that The Usual Suspects screenwriter Christopher McQuarrie has structured the script just so in order to give Cage a chance to relive the day, to regenerate as it were, but while also maintaining his memories. So, each time Cage fights the battle, he learns and improves tactically. Let the video games and often hilarious death-montages ensue!

Doug Liman brings a freshness and a quickness to the storytelling here that is most welcome. Edge of Tomorrow is not weighed down by its plot, and I found it quite refreshing as a science fiction action film. It does not take itself too seriously. And the action is crisp and jagged at the same time, scary and always surprising. I think the ending has its flaws but in terms of execution and vision, I think the film is strong and one of my favorites of the past year. Tom Cruise knows his capabilities, and he remains exciting to watch onscreen. I chose not to get lost down the rabbit-hole of endless purgatory and when does Cage learn what he learns. Instead, I bought into the big picture, enjoyed the small moments, and saw Edge of Tomorrow for what I believe it is: action entertainment of the first-order.