Nothing’s Gonna Change My World

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It is a relatively good thing, I think, that I saw Luc Besson’s summer space adventure Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets before I was able to start reading the original Franch comic series by Pierre Christin and Jean-Claude Mézières by the name of Valerian et Laureline*. It is a brilliant and wonderful work of pulp artistry and adventure storytelling that Valerian certainly lives up to in more than a few ways, but also stands as the kind of visual swashbuckler comic literature I wish I had access to as a child. That I read it after seeing the movie being a good thing is due to how little the characters within the comic series – dashing handsome and tall Valerian and red-haired ingénue from the Middle Ages Laureline – do not at all look similar to Besson’s leads, Dane DeHaan and Cara Delevingne. I like to hope that wouldn’t have bothered me, but just to be sure, the fact that I saw Valerian before reading them ensured that the only reason I’d fell the leads are miscast is because of their performance.

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is a damn great movie in my eyes, regardless of what the detractors of the movie think. It is more than a bit likely to show up on my top 20 of the year and it’s easily my favorite space opera of essentially the four major ones we’ve received this year (the others being Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, Thor: Ragnarok, and sadly Star Wars: The Last Jedi in that preferred order). And yet the one thing I can’t find myself to argue with detractors about (and indeed there are plenty) is that the leads don’t work. Less so Delevingne, who takes command of every moment like her character’s name wasn’t removed from the title with intelligence but would probably do much better with a co-star that she could actually have romantic chemistry with. It’s more DeHaan, not only being unable to pass for dashing anything but instead looking like the son of Peter Lorre in all those baggy eyes and delivering his macho lines like he’s barely out of breath. Lines that, mind you, are essentially a space soldier harassing his partner and only the best kind of screwball chemistry would make it feel less objectionable. DeHaan, an actor I overall love and want to see in more movies (who definitely helped with this year’s earlier A Cure for Wellness) is not that actor.

An out-of-place lead actor is certainly not something I could hold a moviegoer accountable for being unable to ignore, but in truth my love for Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is one that supersedes all of that just as much as my love of Star Wars does likewise. If I ever go to watch a space opera because I want compelling substance, please slap me in the face because something’s wrong with me. Valerian delivers an overwhelming amount of world-building in its gaudy biome designs of different regions in its titular International Space Station (we witness the growth of the original Space Station into this wondrous cornucopia of alien cultures and civilizations in an opening montage to David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” that even detractors find lovely, slowly having several of Besson’s usual collaborators like Louis Leterrier and Olivier Megaton welcome several disarming but lovely extra-terrestrials in the spirit of galactic brotherhood).

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Hell, the moment that the trailer featured a long-shot sequence of Valerian crashing his way past walls separating several different environments and habitats, a variety of smooth surfaces, bold various colors, and dazzling lighting servicing several the kind of cartoonish but ambitious and engrossing CGI convinced me I was going to watch this movie in 3D and the second scene in the movie inviting us to explore a shiny shimmering beach planet where the very skin of its silver natives glows and pearls flow like water before showing off the depth of field by having a violent and explosive invasion occur is when I was certain I made the right decision.

See, I don’t really have a problem with Besson’s screenplay. It’s certainly slightly less stupid than Lucy (which I also stan for) and has a certain subplot that involves a detour introducing us to a wonderfully hammy turn by Ethan Hawke and a crazy fun outfit-switching dance performance by Rihanna (and whatever dance double they had)**, but its main purpose is to utilize the Ambassador of Shadows storyline into the making of a world-building adventure from setpiece to setpiece – here’s a trans-dimensional bazaar where Valerian has to interact with one dimension while inhabiting another to extract an item followed by a monster chase, here’s deep sea dive filled with imaginative sea life before Laureline has to wear some brainsucking jellyfish as a helmet, here’s a Gilliam-esque throne room for a couple of laughs while troll-esque aliens feed their picky king, and so forth. The context isn’t what has to make these experiences joyous to me, Hugues Tissandier’s construction of these sets and creatures does more than enough to do so and then Alexandre Desplat’s sparkling epic score lifts the film to ethereal heights (and it’s not even his best score of the year given The Shape of Water), the sort of spectacle driven cinema that gets butt in the movies to begin with.

Listen, if something as ridiculous looking and sounding as Valerian was not going to be your thing, that’s alright. I stan for the likes of Jupiter Ascending so it could hardly be unexpected that I walked out of it feeling my summer was made. It’s utterly shallow, but it’s also transfixingly vibrant. It doesn’t have as comforting an audience surrogate as Bruce Willis in Besson’s previous The Fifth Element, but if you’re willing to just go for the ride without anyone to relate to, you will still find yourself sucked in. You may or may not have to go into Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets with a very specific idea of what you look for in movies, but luckily it provides exactly what I look for: a brilliant living expansion of worlds and domains for which we can witness setpieces unlike anything we ever have seen before and possibly won’t see since.

*I will go on the record as to pointing out that I find removing Laureline from the title of the film to be a dirty fucking move, especially since I think the argument can be made that Laureline has more screentime overall.
**Between this, Girlhood, and American Honey, movies are really trying to make me overlook my dislike for Rihanna’s music and turn me into a fan of hers. It’s working.

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Time to Die

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Y’all don’t actually think it’s not gonna go down here, right?

You think I’m just gonna be looking out for who hasn’t already seen the movie.

No, bruh, I’m here to say some shit about Blade Runner 2049, director Denis Villeneuve and producer Ridley Scott’s sequel to Scott’s 35-year-old seminal science fiction classic tour de force Blade Runner. And if this isn’t your first time snooping round Motorbreath, you’ve damn well noticed it established multiple times that Blade Runner is my favorite movie – give or take a knife fight with Casablanca, but permit me my passion.

So, when I get into spoiler mode, expect me to put a great big warning and give y’all some time to dip. But there are elements of Blade Runner 2049 I’m simply not going to be able to comment on without grabbing receipts from within the movie itself and while I’m not going to give away the ending, I sure am not going to be hiding the premise like the marketing has been. In the meantime, here’s the short spoiler-free safe mode version of my review:

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Blade Runner 2049 is not a bad movie. It is just a less hated Prometheus, a frustrating overglutted tangle of interesting ideas that are provided in a gorgeously realized future environment, provided by Dennis Gassner and famously lensed by Roger Deakins in what is almost certainly his last hope for that Cinematography Oscar. There are clearly things Blade Runner 2049 wants to be about and it so certainly wants to be about those thinks that it tries to provide overwhelming lip service from characters as much as it can and Blade Runner becomes so frequently a movie of “people talking about what’s going to happen” rather than anything happening.

Which is a weird complaint to make about a sequel to Blade Runner. Blade Runner manages to be satisfied to spend most of its running time just living with the decrepit future noir world of Los Angeles without having much action OR theme-based dialogue, but that last element is the thing. Blade Runner isn’t a movie that talks about what it wants to be about, it just is. The philosophy behind that movie lives within the world-building in itself, the melancholy and existential within the darkened rainy alleys where characters hide and they fear for their lives without having to say “I’m scared”. When Roy Batty comes to terms with his own obliviation, he doesn’t have to say “I’m ok with this”, he just smiles and talks about his favorite memories and he doesn’t even have to spell out the fact that a lot of those memories aren’t real.

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Shoot ‘Em Up

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If you haven’t seen Gareth Evans’ Indonesian The Raid movies, there’s a very blatant distinction between the two parts in the duology. Of course, they’re both action films set with the same lead cop (the talented Iko Uwais) battling down gangs in awe-inspiring physicality, but one of them – the 150 minute Raid 2 – very clearly has an emphasis and investment on character development (particularly a gangster family drama interwoven between the fight scenes) that the other one – the 101 minute The Raid – does not (this one is 99% action setpieces). The story about why that is will be for another time some day when I review the Raid films, as I only bring this up to note a parallel status with the John Wick movies, a vehicle franchise for the very dedicated Keanu Reeves focusing on a similar ballet of bodies involving gunfights and bullets. I would wonder if this change is on account of co-director David Leitch’s absence from the sequel (going on to direct Atomic Blonde and Deadpool 2), but then both films still have director Chad Stahelski and screenwriter Derek Kolstad involved.

I would happen to recommend that you immediately get to watching the Raid and John Wick movies if you haven’t for they are the quintessential 2010s action movies in my eyes.

Anyway, to focus on our subject John Wick: Chapter Two, one wonders briefly if this series’ neglect on the mindset of our titular assassin would be as a result of its doubling down on visual aesthetic and world-building, which it does in spades. As the first movie is no less gorgeous but still stripped down and focused on John’s path of vengeance without intention at expanding the huge world of underground assassins that it establishes but only portrays peripheral to John’s perspective. Its aesthetic lives in its deliberately limited storytelling, which also resulted in a much more emotional film than Chapter Two. Chapter Two is certainly not an emotional movie.

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It is, however, a wide epic now, expanding its scope from New York City to Rome and back as Wick (Reeves) is forced by the smug crime lord Santino D’Antonio (the effortlessly heel-like Riccardo Scamarcio, who I shortly after witnessed in season 2 of Master of None and realized he’s great at playing douchebags like an Italian Jon Bernthal) via the blood oath that helped Wick ensure his retirement, to kill Santino’s sister Gianna (Claudia Gerini). Absolutely no one is surprised when Santino betrays John and sends Wick on the run, not only from his mute bodyguard Ares (Ruby Rose, who is having a good action movie year with that, Resident Evil: The Final Chapter, and XXX: Return of Xander Cage – I haven’t seen one of these, but I’m going out on a limb guessing this is her best performance of the three just from how expressive it is for such a small part) and Gianna’s own very personal bodyguard Cassian (Common in a more overt vengeful attitude than Reeves in the previous film), but from all the Assassins in the world. Santino’s arrangement of a 7 million dollar hit on Wick’s head forces the man’s desperation, hiding, and appeal for aid from the homeless Bowery King (kind of spoiled in the trailers, but I’ve seen enough reviews hold back on the actors’ identity to do similar. All I will say is the actor in question gave me a HUUUUUUUGE Orson Welles vibe which made it all the better to me).

Anyway, John Wick vs. The World, basically. The opportunities are endless and Stahelski goes crazy providing several different glorious setpiece designs for Reeves to grunt and sweat his way through, none of them as great as the central scene of John Wick (that club gun battle. Don’t night clubs make the best shooting ranges?) and all of them absolutely novel– here’s a car chase through the mirrored streets of New York, here’s Reeves and Common having a bit of slapstick comedy throwing each other down flights of stairs, here’s a throwback to the famous “with a FUCKING PENCIL!” line (with a foreshadow at the beginning by a cameoing Peter Stormare), here’s a shooting duck gallery in the subway station, here’s a chase/gun battle through a hall of mirrors – and shot by Dan Laustsen in high gloss that makes every fast motion and swipe smooth as baby Jesus’ bottom and edited by Evan Schiff with continuity and impact.

And that’s when they’re in the nocturnal lights of New York City, for the film somehow has a different visual language towards its European setting and gives an aristocratic art cinema sense of pace and style. From the elegant manner of weapon selection, to the underground historic catacombs, right down to briefly replacing Ian McShane as “Zeus”, the way Movies with Mikey called him oh so perfectly, with Franco Nero as “Italian Zeus”. Which possibly helps me enjoy John Wick more, the versatility in distinguishing only two cultures it feels like cheating into globe-trotting. The real expansion comes to the Assassins’ mythology now that we have not only our returning cast like John Leguizamo, Lance Reddick, and David Patrick Kelly, but a real sense of stories outside of Wick’s point of view like Cassian’s and The Bowery King’s that only unluckily intertwine with Wick’s and a sense of consequence to their laws by the perfect note Chapter 2 chooses to end on, which only serves more promise for the inevitable third installment. I’ll welcome it eagerly, I only want to see more of this playground Stahelski has set Reeves’ unstoppable badass in, even if the bar is set already much too high by this chapter.

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25 for 25 – Tears in Rain

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Like I said just before, two movies battle for the spot of My All-Time Favorite Movie and I don’t want my decision to end on the film Blade Runner to imply that I actually give the edge to it as my favorite (even as it appears as number one in the actual posted list from last year, I find myself more and more aligned with Casablanca as I grow older), but mainly the fact that Blade Runner and I happen to share the exact same birthday: 25 June, so given that the special occasion of this series of reviews is in fact my 25 birthday on that day (35th birthday for Blade Runner and the year of its imminent sequel in October Blade Runner 2049), I may as well finish up on that very film that shares its nascency with me. And sure, it came out a full 10 years before I came to the world, it also didn’t truly earn its canonical status in cinema until the misnomered “Director’s Cut” (based on director Ridley Scott’s preferred notes without his direct involvement) came out on the exact year of my birth. So there’s squaring all of the anniversary and yearly stuff and blah.

The house cleaning in that above paragraph doesn’t even square the multiple cuts of Blade Runner that do exist in many forms, the most notable distinction being in which versions have the narration and what note it ends on (some have a direct statement as to the nature of the lead character’s existence, one infamously has an optimistic ending tonally separated from the rest of the movie). I just wanna be clear – ANY version of Blade Runner could be my favorite movie, I love it that much. But to identify what I’m talking about, my preferred version is the 2007-released Final Cut which is essentially the director’s cut (i.e. no narration, “unicorn dream”) with cosmetic changes that fix up any flaws and make it feel modernized and high quality in its visuals.

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For you see, Blade Runner is a movie extremely reliant on its visuals and atmosphere for my high praise of it*, being involved in two of the most visually demanding genres in any form of art… science fiction and neo-noir. Demands that cinematographer Jordan Cronenweth and designers Laurence G. Paull and David Snyder and concept artist Syd Mead are all willing to meet with, providing a decrepit zombie of urban Los Angeles in 2019 that can only barely stand to feel dynamic based on the poisonous neon lights threatening to evaporate the near-constant rain. It’s like if somebody caught pre-Giuliani New York City on its worst day and decided to give it glowsticks to cheer it up but that only depressed it more. That compliments the pessimistic mood of Blade Runner and meshes well with the nihilistic ideology of the noir genre without even having to deliver a single line of dialogue. Sure, these days that sort of aesthetic is seen in any given dark future picture, but Blade Runner originated most of it and feels like an assemblage of the perfect amount of pieces the same way that Halloween feels so with the slasher genre. And all that style is in benefit to the story, it’s not just what we’re looking at here but what it tells us in an unspoken way:

What it tells us is the story of Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford), an ex-Blade Runner – police hired to kill synthetically created humans known as “replicants” in 2019 – who is pulled back into the profession after the escape of four Nexus-6 brand replicants, the ones most highly capable of emotional responses to their scenarios and the most updated model: imposing Leon (Brion James) who initiated this search after his attempted murder of an active Blade Runner, sharp Zhora (Joanna Cassidy), naïve Pris (Daryl Hannah), and her leader boyfriend Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer). Deckard’s investigation takes him to the creator of replicants himself Eldon Tyrell (Joe Turkel) and the discovery that his assistant Rachael (Sean Young) is in fact a highly advanced form of replicant. So advanced even she doesn’t know she’s a replicant.

Batty has his own problems: The Nexus-6 has a built-in fail safe of a four-year lifespan and so he’s on the hunt for Tyrell in order to acquire the opportunity for an extension on he and his fellow replicants’ clearly numbered days.

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The themes immediately write themselves – the identity crisis of Rachael discovering most of her life to be a fabrication, the dehumanization and amorality of Deckard’s line of work, the existential crisis facing Batty as he faces his own mortality – it doesn’t take much to understand what Blade Runner will explore just from a synopsis or flesh those out (and I do believe Hampton Fancher and David Peoples’ script very loosely adapted from Phillip K. Dick’s novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? does the bare minimum of its requirements), but that doesn’t mean there is a whole range to the mysteries and answers Blade Runner tries to provide in the span of itself, as well as its dissection of its central genres. Just looking at the two lead performances from Ford and Hauer – Ford was very famously antagonistic to Scott and the material, yet that contempt for the movie ends up being its best friend in how it translates to cynicism and reluctancy for a character that doesn’t want to be doing this job in the first place. In a genre like noir where apathy and inevitability hang over the protagonist like cigarette smoke, we have a genuinely apathetic presence from an actor’s genuine attitude. And Hauer himself is so excitedly controlled and deliberate in his movement that it demands our eyes look at him when he enters the room, the chill of his eyes promising a savagery that we are paid with the film’s pseudo-slasher final chase, and coldly intellectual in even his expression of sorrow and pain at his comrade’s slaughter that we can believe he’s trying to understand these emotions developing in him while finding profundity in his actions and words (not for nothing can he sell sci-fi jargon like “I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhausen Gate” and make it possibly my favorite line of dialogue of all time. In fact, the whole “Tears in Rain” holds me down) and believing him as artificial perfection. He’s like a child who learned to run instead of walk and is now trying to figure out walking. It’s incredible.

Now, very few intellectual subjects interest me more than the concept of the self and what it means for such an intangible abstraction to give our individual lives such weight. And it’s a very scary topic, one that it’s easy to fall into several downhill spirals. Scott, in one of the few times his attempts at pop philosophy actually works out, provides one of the most welcoming explorations of that concept in Blade Runner and that all comes from how he knows the darkness of those intellectual corners can be given visual root within a city made up almost entirely of shadows without weak lights visually defining what’s on-screen in a minimalist fashion. Our mind fills out the rest of those shadows or we just leave them be, depending on how we look at things. And Blade Runner‘s ambiguity on certain plot threads allows that same level of impressionism on its narrative (though I personally feel there is a direct answer to the “Is Deckard a replicant?” debate within the Director’s and Final Cuts; one that seems to be contradicted by the existence of a Blade Runner sequel where Deckard is still a character). And that versatility to what the viewer gives or takes away only once again goes full circle to the film’s attempts to square with identity and what truly makes one human. Is it their deeds, is it their makeup? Is there actually an absolute answer?

I dunno, but I like thinking about it and for some reason, despite the pessimism of its visual world, I like doing it within the realms of Blade Runner‘s universe. Drifting away from the barely consequential plot to think about it in the middle of the heavy rain (Blade Runner is probably why I love rain) and under the lullabies of Vangelis’ pensive and mechanical synthesizer score (Blade Runner is probably why I love synthesizer music as well). Inside the broken blue-hued shells of the metropolitan nightmares that remind me of living in Far Rockaway provided by its matte paintings and its model visual effects (some of the best practical effects live inside of Blade Runner matching up to 2001: A Space Odyssey in their tangibility and surpassing it outright in imagination and fantasy). It’s all a space for me to draw out my thoughts in between the movie’s runtime. I’ve said it once, I’ll say it again and let it be the final note on this movie and this very review series: my greatest dreams live inside the world of Blade Runner.

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*And indeed, I find it very interesting that I can have Casablanca vie so heavily for my favorite movie slot based on its narrative construction and Blade Runner based on its aesthetic. What a split in me.

Thanks for reading. Oh what’s this? A Patreon page? If you enjoyed my writing and would like to support it, share this post and tell your friends bout Movie Motorbreath on facebook. If that ain’t enough and you really want to give us financial support, go on that Patreon link and get you a bad stick figure of your favorite movie!

25 for 25 – Put on Your Red Shoes and Dance the Blues

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Nowadays, movies are saturated all the way through with stories about struggling artists and that has been so since the nascency of the very artform (the oldest I can think of on the spot is the historical Jazz Singer from 1927, but you can be damn sure that’s a great underestimation on my part) and because every artist takes their art seriously, even if they’re talking about different artforms and mediums, they all essentially have some sort of emotional investment in the struggles of the artist. Life struggles, physical struggles, psychological struggles, financial struggles, it’s oh so very hard to be an artist but worth it because of what you create and how it obviously affects others, these are all the revelations each one of these movies discover over and over and over again.

And so I suppose on the very genesis of it, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger aka The Archers (always getting duo credits for director, producer, and writer, but  were not doing anything special when they decided to make a movie about a ballet based on the Hans Christian Anderson fairy tale “The Red Shoes”, but the execution behind it… it leaves most of those other movies in the dust. The Red Shoes seems more intent overall as a movie to utilize as many of the tools of cinema as it can to make the psychological state of its lead dancer Vicky Page (Moira Shearer) into a complete abstraction and succeeds marvelously. Powell and Pressburger are responsible for some of the inarguably most beautiful movies of all time and I sincerely think The Red Shoes‘ design is easily their best. Meaning that I think The Red Shoes is one of the best-looking movies to ever exist, fuck it. And a lot of that praise from revolves around its central scene.

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I’m not sort of guy who subscribes to the idea that only one element being masterful is enough to carry a movie to pantheon-level. I like to think of film as collaborative and needing every element to work perfectly before it can get better. But if I end up talking exclusively about the ballet close to the end of this, I want you to understand: this is a movie shot by Jack Cardiff, the Archers’ regular, and designed by Arthur Lawson and Hein Heckroth and even the mundane one-on-one discussions are set in such aristocratic palatial interiors that it’s all wonderful to look at. But that ballet is why this movie is a masterpiece, just everything else around it is great. But first the context to that scene:

In the development of that very ballet adaptation of the Anderson story, the impresario of one of the most acclaimed ballet companies in the world Boris Lermontov (Anton Walbrook based essentially on Sergei Diaghilev, director of the Ballet Russes) has employed the dancer Vicky whom he finds an arresting amount of potential in and the young conservatory student Julian Craster (Marius Goring) whom he hires after discovering that one of the company’s composers has in fact been a professor of Craster’s and plagiarizing his work. There’s hardly much more beyond backstage drama going on within the film leading up to the ballet, but one of those very threads of backstage drama wraps itself around Vicky’s ankle and tries to tear her apart. And that thread is the romance that blossoms between her and Craster in their preparations and artistic arguments for the upcoming show that begins to disturb Lermontov. Not of a romantic jealousy, though. Lermontov is of the strict opinion that there is no room for domesticity in the hunt for artistic greatness and we earlier see him dismiss his prima ballerina Irina (Ludmilla Tcherina) for her imminent marriage. The gendered factor aside, it’s very clear that Vicky wants to be able to live her life in love with Craster AND wants to reach her full potential as an dancer under Lermontov’s guidance, but Lermontov absolutely will not allow her to have both and it leads to a domestic clash of attitudes between Craster’s young anger and Lermontov’s stubborn classicalism with the helpless Vicky in between unable to use her autonomy to truly pick one or the other and all three of the leads are superb on this front.

But Shearer gets the best most showy role and she gets to do it in the middle of one of the all-time greatest dancepieces ever put to film, particularly because it is the sort of dancepiece that could only be set to film. Scored by the Brian Easdale’s composition conducted by Sir Thomas Beecham with the Royal Philharmonic, the scope of Lawson and Heckroth’s sets and backgrounds to the play do not fit into any reasonable proscenium scale, there is no way this production can work within a stage, but because The Red Shoes is a movie and not a stage production, it gets to cheat at it and have all these angular, surrounding expressionist village sets full of depth despite their artificiality and the superimposed easy on the eyes skies of red and blue to begin heightening our emotional reactions to these colors and at the center Shearer and Leonide Massine (playing the Shoemaker within the play) pantomime essentially the relationship between Vicky and Lermontov, the Red Shoes being the most obvious metaphor for Vicky’s desire to dance and once they’re on her shoes in a magical movie trick of stop motion, she dances oh so elegantly and wonderfully and then precariously and then interminably and it turns from blissful to frightening just from the curtness of Vicky’s movements and the stamina Shearer must have and then the world keeps spinning around her and we witness that with her sways and the backgrounds now becoming easy light colors that would be so comfortable if it wasn’t obvious how much it pains the girl in the red shoes until the ballet itself climaxes in a manner that foresees the tragedy of the drama behind the production itself.

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The bad news is that it tells the story of the movie already in the most overt manner and once The Red Shoes reaches those heights, it never ever returns to them. Everything after seems mundane in its aftermath despite being made two of the least mundane filmmakers in all of 1940s British filmmaking. And it almost ends up being a waiting game for the rest of the movie to get to the ending you already know it’s heading towards, but maybe that’s just if you’re me and prefer your storytelling by such overt visual abstractions rather than by narrative drama. Because by god, do Shearer and Walbrook and Goring still do their best in their performances to match up in the Archers’ scripted melodrama what that ballet was able to do in craft and I personally find it worthy of a cool down. The Red Shoes feels like a complete challenge to Musical Cinema beyond, the 1950s being plumfull of centerpiece dance numbers like An American in ParisSingin’ in the Rain, and The Band Wagon trying to match up to Powell and Pressburger’s daring marriage of film and dance and music and stage to become the ultimate artform, but there can only be one pair of Red Shoes and it looks like Powell and Pressburger are wearing them. I guess they can split it.

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Thanks for reading. Oh what’s this? A Patreon page? If you enjoyed my writing and would like to support it, share this post and tell your friends bout Movie Motorbreath on facebook. If that ain’t enough and you really want to give us financial support, go on that Patreon link and get you a bad stick figure of your favorite movie!

Cove-Nah-nt

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When I actually look back on the expectations of Alien: Covenant, I wonder if it just had way too much to carry and if I might feel better for it with that in mind. Doubtful, because I’m thinking right now about how it is trying to be a successor to Alien AND a successor to Prometheus – both movies I like very much (fuck the Prometheus haters) – and I still am kind of disappointed by it. It cannot be both of those things whatsoever, something I think the evident mountain of cut footage by Ridley Scott (who directed all three movies I just mentioned) shows his awareness of because of how very dissonant both movies are. Prometheus is a philosophical musing and Alien is blunt horror film with no room for thought. There are great moments of Alien: Covenant that could function for both the scary monster movie genre film and for the introspective treatise on the cost of creation and meeting your maker and so it’s upsetting to have to choose between one or the other, but it’s a very obviously unbalanced mesh of ideas that cannot share the same movie and if I had to pick one: I wish Alien: Covenant were the shallower mad scientist/slasher horror movie it became in the later part of itself.

What makes me lean that way is so much of what is aesthetically great about Alien: Covenant would be better suited for genre filmmaking than existential writing: the production design by Chris Seagers full of gothic dark edges of ancient towers and surrounding ruins, industrial weary space station rooms, and chillingly light green exteriors (those colors especially brought out by cinematographer Darius Wolski). There’s an interior candlelit set that looks like the inside of a hollow body and the sketches all around it are the alarmingly clinical sort to spell out the intentions of its owner in plain sight. Which is to say nothing of the return of Giger’s phallic monstrous Xenomorphs and I… fuck, man, I wanted to start out sounding positive enough, but if I’m going to talk about the Xenomorphs, well…

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It’s no secret Prometheus and Alien: Covenant function as prequels attempting to elaborate on the origin of the Xenomorph species, something NOBODY asked for and that is presented in an inevitably disappointing fashion by the script by John Logan and Dante Harper. So we’re meeting prototype versions of the xenomorphs and they just look flat-out stupid. They’re bad. They’re a bunch of overlit unconvincing CGI pygmy see-through versions of the Xenomorphs, they look even worse in motion, and we see them too much. We eventually get the full-grown versions of Giger’s creature and THOSE look fine, but they get very little screentime. So, the worse thing to me an Alien movie can do is make the actual monster – frightening nightmare fuel that he already is in design – look stupid and, man, this might just be the second worst work on the animal since Fincher’s Alien 3

Anyway, back to sounding positive for a bit more, and it’s not gonna be easy given I’ve already gotten started on what I don’t like about Covenant. The other thing that aids the idea of Covenant working better as slasher film than Ridley Scott’s thoughts on God is how indistinct Logan and Harper’s characters are. We have 14 different crewmembers of the titular Covenant ship, all married to each other and all responsible for the safety of the over 200 also-paired colonists in hypersleep. After Captain Branson (James Franco, thankfully not saying a thing or even opening his eyes) is killed in a freak accident that wakes the rest of the crew, they find a potentially closer habitable planet. The new Captain Oram (Billy Crudup) makes the decision to give it a look, despite of the protest of Branson’s widow and terraforming expert Daniels (Katharine Waterston), and save them the longer trip. The boots on the ground discover the place to have shown evidence of a previous humanoid population and the wreckage of the Engineer ship from Prometheus yet the planet seems completely deserted. If you need to be told what happens once spores are shown to enter two of the crew’s bodies, you haven’t seen Alien.

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Anyway, like said before, the crew members are all just a body count for the xenomorphs once they savage their way out into the world and they’re only as identifiable as their performance. Good news for Waterston’s final girl persona and Crudup’s obnoxious man of faith; okay news for Amy Seimetz and Carmen Ejogo who have really one scene where they get to provide a louder note of terror and admittedly do well with it; bad news for practically everyone else. Danny McBride is hands-down my biggest reason to be excited for this movie (my love for Eastbound & Down overwhelms my love for Alien or horror) and his attempts at drama and fear were frankly labored here. The only actor decently serviced by the script is Michael Fassbender as two separate synthetics – David’s sinister return from Prometheus and the duty-bound Walter – and I would do an injustice describing how astoundingly Fassbender serves their split identities and the thematic material that exits David’s lips and enter’s Walter’s minds as the former tries to influence the latter. Fassbender-on-Fassbender action (both literal and figurative) is literally the only time all Scott’s attempted eloquences on humanity and destiny and questions of God and man actually have the sort of profound attitudes that suit such a film, as well as serving to flesh out David’s attitudes as similar to that of Dr. Pretorius in Bride of Frankenstein and his motivations behind the third act of the film going full-on monster mode. It’s only a small amount unfortunately and that doesn’t work in anybody’s else’s shoes: not Crudup’s talk of the devil, not Waterston’s attempts at motivating her colleagues to survive. They’re good performances but they’re not Michael Fassbender and so don’t service the side of Covenant that wants to be the ponderous follow-up to Prometheus.

At a little under two hours, Alien: Covenant is not long at all. And yet it felt like it outstayed its welcome because of the double-stuffed goals of Ridley Scott and it’s seeming more and more like Scott should take it easy and stick to straightforward popcorn work. He hasn’t been nearly as successfully intellectual a filmmaker since Blade Runner (or the original cut of Kingdom of Heaven), but his eye for visuals still promises an ability to entertain on a surface-level. Prometheus and The Martian had the right idea only letting the strictly entertaining stand-out. It can’t satisfy otherwise.

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Be Our Pest, Be Our Pest… Put My Patience to the Test

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I don’t know if we feel safe with identifying the very beginning of this exhausting span of Live-Action (or Photorealistic CGI) remakes of their animated classics as 1994 with Stephen Sommers’ The Jungle Book, 1996 with the Glenn Close vehicle 101 Dalmatians, or 2010 with Tim Burton’s nightmare version of Alice in Wonderland. In any case, despite being really impressed with the Jon Favreau version of The Jungle Book and David Gordon Green Lowery’s version of Pete’s Dragon last year, I think Bill Condon’s remake of Beauty and the Beast has proven to be enough to exhaust me from wanting these things to happen again, no matter how many Donald Glovers you cast as Simba. It’s not a fatigue things where there’s too many of them (I mean, there are, but one was already too many), it’s a “THIS MOVIE IS FUCKING BAD AND POTENTIALLY THE WORST OF THE REMAKES SO FAR GIVE OR TAKE A REWATCH OF BURTON’S ALICE IN WONDERLAND THAT WILL NEVER FUCKING HAPPEN” thing.

I am aware I may be overreacting, given that Beauty and the Beast is a movie that I can find very few problems with and one of my favorite Disney movies of all-time (hence a contender for one of my favorite movies of all time outright), but I can’t think of any which way that most of the changes made to the story or aesthetic of the original animated film could be assumedly directed towards the good end of things. Like for real, the times when the movie isn’t being totally offensive to my eyes are how it just tries to or Ewan McGregor as the candelabra Lumiere actually displays campy swagger within his scenes, thus invigorating energy into the sloggish film just from his own voice acting (the design of the character… ehhhhh… we’ll get back to that.

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This film has entirely drained me of my willingness to sacrifice time and energy to provide a prose review so I’m opting to just rush this as quickly as I can by listing all the things about this movie that I either very much enjoyed (for there are indeed things that I enjoyed that tried – but failed due to overwhelming circumstances – to dull the pain of watching this) and by listing everything about it that I fucking hated. I will not forgive this movie for the following items:

  • Dan Stevens has been on a roll already from Downton Abbey to Legion to even a star-making performance (in a perfect world) in The Guest, a movie I otherwise dislike. He’s not in The Cobbler enough to let that derail his career, why the fuck would you dare to ruin his stride by giving him the rubberiest beast face one could ever see and morphing his voice? This is an unfair way to tarnish his legacy!
  • Speaking of the visual aesthetic of the thing, all of the characters who are transformed into frightening looking frigid items that inspire more shock and body horror fear than the sort of magical wonder Beauty and the Beast as a story should aim for? In some cases, like Lumiere, the physicality of the thing is outright ghastly and devoid of a way to match the personality to the look (which is why I enjoy animation so much). Is this deliberate? I hope not because it just shows contempt for the whole concept. Like, this screenshot from Twin Peaks is essentially the vibe I get from every single physical design of the house staff:

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And yet their voices are so cheerful.

  • Speaking of the aesthetic, did Sarah Greenwood’s unicorn shit all over the fucking set and they couldn’t clean it up in time? This castle of the beast is a garish gold! The provincial town is fine if still lost in time, but who looks to these movies for temporal identity.
  • If you’re going to have a cast of singers, this isn’t La La Land where they’re meant to feel like real people. They better damn well sing and I will never EVER FUCKING EVER forgive director Bill Condon for having an autotuned Emma Thompson throw her Lansbury impersonation to perform a Daft Punk rendition of Beauty and the Beast. Let alone Emma Watson sounding like T-Pain overdubbed her.
  • Josh Gad’s self-aware post-modern performance would be welcome in a movie that’s obviously supposed to feel like a parody of Beauty and the Beast and even then… the stuff he says is just not funny. There has never been a comedy actor that’s made me more conflicted than Gad.
  • Tim Rice is not Howard Ashman. Because Ashman was a God and Tim Rice is a terrible lyricist. So please, stop using Rice’s fucking songs. “How Does a Moment Last Forever” and “Evermore” do not remotely compare to “Gaston”, “Beauty and the Beast”, and “Belle”. Not to mention the visuals of those numbers are just fractured and not nearly as sweeping as the original.
  • More importantly somehow the movie thought “Daddy Issues” was the answer to making the Beast seem a much more interesting character and ignoring complaints Stockholm Syndrome. Instead it makes The Beast seem so petulant and it’s inconceivable how the brand new “feminist” version of Belle would be even remotely attracted to him.
  • The consequence of all this is padding a fleet 86 minute fairy tale to a 129 minute overgluttonous grotesquerie.

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And because I am absolutely generous, I will also list everything I like about this movie’s existence.

  • The costumes are good in a cosplay contest winner sort of way. Nothing truly expressive, but Jacqueline Durran obviously wants to emulate the original in the most theatrical manner and gets the job done.
  • Ewan McGregor gives a fun vocal performance as Lumiere just chewing up scenery without even being physicially on-screen and his chemistry with Gugu Mbatha-Raw lights things up enough (pun intended).
  • McGregor, Mbatha-Raw, Stanley Tucci, and Audra McDonald have the most hilariously fake accents I’ve ever heard and put so much character and personality in their limited screentime that I would have much rather THEY were the stars of the movie.

And that’s it. None for Gretchen Wieners. Fuck this movie.

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X Marks the Spot

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So entertain me for a moment if you would, I want you to try to think back upon a time in which there wasn’t as much an overglut of superhero movies as there is now, much less the concept of the film universe except in non-film spin-offs like comic books or video games. It’s tough to imagine since movies based on comic movies were actually in existence for a long time well before you’d imagine. We have the theatrical serials of the 30s and 40s based on your favorite characters of Superman and Batman before they got their large scale feature film debut in 1978 and 1966 respectively (yeah, Burton’s film came out in ’89 and really brought out the Batmania but we forget Adam West introduced the world as we know it to Batman, however campy that Batman is). Hell, we don’t even necessarily have to stick out of superheroes to claim comic book movies an inconsistent practice, since we have Dick Tracy, Howard the DuckFlash Gordon, and so many others roaming around to varying effect.

But we weren’t so saturated with superhero films as we are now (e.g., this year has us see the release of Batman v. SupermanCaptain America: Civil WarDeadpoolX-Men: ApocalypseSuicide SquadDoctor Strange, and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows) to the point of them becoming a mainstay of cinema like Westerns in the early decades or Slashers in the 80s. That didn’t come from Superman or Batman‘s successes, as impressive as they were, for some reason or another. They were already cultural icons.

My personal suggestion is a 1-2-3 triple threat in the years entering the new millennium that truly kickstarted the free-for-all scramble studios made for as many comic book properties as they could get their damn hands on, knowing that even the worst of them were growing to be a money-printing industry. First, in 1997, Men in Black was released by Sony Pictures, loosely based on the Marvel Comics to a degree that I can’t entirely cover (having never read them) but I understand to be an extreme tonal shift. Yet, Men in Black became the first comic book movie ever to make half a million dollars at the box office and, while it wasn’t marketed as a movie based on a comic book so much as a Will Smith/Tommy Lee Jones vehicle – the former being in the middle of his rise from The Fresh Prince into one of the biggest movie stars of all time, the latter a fresh Oscar winner – and effects extravaganza, and convinced Marvel Studios to continue its relationship with Sony Pictures by granting them the rights of a particularly recognizable superhero. That superhero being Spider-Man, which released in 2002, to even more astonishing success – making $821.7 million that overshadowed the success of Men in Black, being the first movie to ever make $100 million in its first weekend, and at the time having the largest opening gross of all time.

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And yet between those two, the real ignition underneath Spider-Man that already had studios keeping their eye on how these superhero movies did was Fox’s 2000 release of X-Men, a movie Fox had gotten rights to in 1994 after the success of the animated series in the 90s and that had – at just $300 million – promised that at worst you’d make a whole lotta money and while Spider-Man promised at best you’d make all the money in the world and then some.

Following the comic book with relatively surprising fidelity, X-Men tells the story of a race of humanity that possess a variety of superpowers, known to the world as Mutants. They are all feared and mistrusted by the rest of the world, as we witness the United States Government early in the film attempting to figure out the best and safest way to decidedly marginalize and disenfranchise them, with psychic Jean Grey (Famke Janssen) being the Mutant’s sole representative to these discussions and constantly being shut-out and shut down by vehement anti-Mutant Senator Robert Kelly (Bruce Davison). In the meantime, there is just as much in-fighting among the Mutants as there is the few Mutants that try to give a public front for America, namely Grey and her psychic mentor Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart), the latter running a school for Mutants that doubles as a refuge from the alienation of the rest of the world. Xavier himself also has to keep eyes on his former partner and now nemesis, bitterly vengeful Holocaust survivor and master of metal manipulation Erik “Magneto” Lensherr (Ian McKellan), who promises something very nasty for Kelly and indeed the entire world for threatening to put him through the same trauma again. And thus Xavier has the X-Men, a mutant team to keep the world safe from Lensherr’s own Brotherhood of Mutants.

It’s a very focused narrative for such a wide scope of issues that David Hayter’s screenplay tackles, based on a storyline constructed by director Bryan Singer and Tom DeSanto. Especially ones so bluntly politicized as racism, runaway youths, immigration (not as easy to recognize without the foreknowledge that Wolverine is Canadian), domestic terrorism, and even others that can be applied based on the perspective of the viewer (the openly gay Singer had always approached the issue as he would homophobia while I actually found the movie to come to my life at the perfect point to acknowledge post-9/11 Islamophobia as a Muslim child, especially projected by the opening scene of X2: X-Men United). And it largely gets to clean itself up this way by focusing primarily on two points of views that I will get to later on in this review, but in the meantime, Hayter’s writing – while very mindful of keeping separate the way Lensherr and Xavier would express ideals and giving Kelly especially McCarthy-esque attitudes to exude – mirrors Singer in a manner that one doesn’t really realize until you probably have the retrospect a crapload of superhero movies since affords you: Singer’s direction and Hayter’s script is for the most part has a herculean amount of restraint, especially when you consider both have proven to be extreme fans of the X-Men comics that relished the chance to make this movie. I don’t know if it has to do with the still-shaky computer-generated imagery at the time but a lot of the story beats are grounded in dialogue between characters drawing lines in the sand than actual action setpieces, though there are plenty effects numbers to keep us satiated and stunned by what the characters can do. There are arguably two action setpieces and that’s it: the train station battle and the Liberty Island battles, both in the back half of the film (There is also the climax immediately after the latter on top of the Statue of Liberty but it is most certainly one of the times where the movie’s CGI fall most grievously apart). But there are smaller moments where the movie gets to interject some showcase of the Mutant’s capabilities and it’s almost always to the aid of the script rather than divorced from it. Meanwhile, Singer and his frequent cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel approach the film in a composed manner that compliments the anamorphic ratio of the picture without making it show off until the team gets into the Liberty Island’s head and grounds so much of the design of the movie in cold and tired blues and greens and browns without falter. This isn’t a movie that wants to pop, this is a movie that wants to feel like its in the real-world without sacrificing any of that realism. Which is probably why Hayter’s script is also so definitely grounded and to the point with every discussion, there’s no place for Joss Whedon’s quips in here (two of which survived an early draft of his and both of them astonishingly out of place, though “you’re a dick” at least made me laugh as a kid).

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Hayter’s manner of grounding the film and streamlining all these incidents into one narrative is by starting with the point of view of one character, the runaway Rogue (Anna Paquin), and deftly turning the perspective halfway through to the real breakout star of the film, Logan/Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) as both encounter Xavier and his School for the Gifted for the first time. Which explains why I tried to hold off talking about them for so long because, just as much as Singer’s winking love for these characters and attempts to visually sympathize with them in every manner, Paquin and Jackman’s performances are the secret weapons of this movie. Paquin doesn’t get enough love for her ability to communicate the sense of dislocation, unbelonging, and anxiety that a teenage girl forced to abandon her life would feel (as she absorbs the energy and powers of every she touches to their complete pain), with wide eyes and a coiled-up discomfort that she implies that she could turn every bit as jaded as healing knife-handed Wolverine while Jackman, in the role that not only made him a BIG DAMN STAR but also made me actually admire a character I otherwise hate in other medium (A small, hairy, smelly ball of anger? No thanks.), actively amplifies the primal nature of Wolverine’s personality in every aspect from his distrust and paranoia to his  his paternal tenderness towards Paquin by only making surface expressions with a suppression of inner commentary, implying the fact that Wolverine doesn’t want to live inside his head for even the smallest while (something explored once again in the immediate sequel). Together, they make a very relatable pair of protagonists and their chemistry makes an interesting father-daughter dynamic based on how damaged they are as characters. Early on, Rogue asks with a stir of sympathy and fear if it hurts when Wolverine unleashes his adamantium claws (a very early effects shot shows one such claw tearing its way out of his middle knuckle in bloodless speed yet uncomfortable closeness) and Wolverine responds with a resigned sadness “every time”, a moment that marks how the two of them begin to relate in their hurt.

And they’re still only second-best to what may be the finest comic book movie cast ever assembled (only rivaled by its sequel, Spider-Man, and The Addams Family), one where every single actor selected smacks of inspiration from Singer and co-producer Tom DeSanto eager to see the characters they love brought to life. Stewart – already a star for his Shakespearean work and Star Trek: The Next Generation – is a complete no-brainer, Janssen carries an intellectual air to Jean while also juggling the subtle sexuality that puts her in the middle of a romantic triangle between Wolverine and her boyfriend Scott “Cyclops” Summers (James Marsden), Davison a self-satisfied despicability in his Senator Kelly followed by overwhelming terror as he turns into a Cronenberg character later in the film, Rebecca Romijn-Stamos a mysterious and dangerous aura that makes me kind of hate what Jennifer Lawrence has done to her shapeshifting Mystique since, and even bit roles like Ray Park and Tyler Mane as Toad and Sabretooth respectively have a very physical personality to their villainous henchmen to Magneto (a repulsively inhuman athleticism to the former, an imposing stature and feral facial features in the latter) that couldn’t possibly be done without the actors they used, even given their heavy make-up work. Best in show is of course McKellan as Magneto, who takes great relish in the villainous affiliation of the character, striding into every scene with confidence and underlining it by the pathos of the character’s justification to himself of the horrors he’s witnessed and his vehement refusal to suffer once again (the character was based in the comic by Jack Kirby, Stan Lee, and Chris Claremont on Meir Kahane and his relationship with Xavier based on Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X).

The ensemble cast is not entirely perfect: James Marsden as Cyclops doesn’t give agency to an already pretty bland “Boy Scout” of a character (and Cyclops is meant to be the leader) and Halle Berry as Ororo “Storm” Munroe has every bit of acting she can spare in the role eaten up by an awfully unbelievable Kenyan accent. Truth be told, X-Men is never anywhere close to a perfect movie – the climax blowing up in the movie’s face, Michael Kamen’s score being aimlessly bombastic (I can never not think of him as more of a metal composer), the overstuffing of the cast means that Hayter and Singer need to think of some dodgy ways to put some characters out of commission (always a problem in this franchise, though Singer is at least the one filmmaker who knows how to juggle as many characters as he can). Still, X-Men proved to be successful enough in all the things it wants to do – distinguishable characters, human-based narrative, impressive fight scenes, comic book imagery – that its sophisticated subduction of style makes it an interesting hallmark for a genre and culture in film that has just begun to get noisier and bigger without an ounce of the impact X-Men makes as a film on its own terms. The idea that we can have such an unabashed fan be willing to make hard decisions and watch over his aesthetic like this, as opposed to say Zack Snyder, is part of what made the X-Men franchise work out against all odds and keeps it rolling to this day.

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The Maddest Most Maximum Force of the Future

Listen, there’s no way to go around this.

What is about to follow is hardcore gushing.

If my Hit Me With Your Best Shot video where I am spitting so many praises I accidentally make the bone-headed mistake of saying “teal and blue” like a fuckhead was any sign of how restrained I could be, I’m going to be a little more restrained than that, but it’s not gonna be objective. I mean, have you seen any of my reviews being wholly objective? Basically, it’s obvious that I love Mad Max: Fury Road. I really do. I’ve seen it four times by now, the last time being willing to sit through Liemax and watch it through 3D that did the movie no favors just to have a friend watch it (I later discovered this sacrifice was unnecessary as he watched it days before). Another of those screenings was also forcing a caravan to witness how Kamekrazy the film is.

No, not sold on how much I loved it?

Having watched all four movies in a row, I was able to put all of them side-by-side and I consider Mad Max: Fury Road my favorite of the franchise yet. Even while acknowledging The Road Warrior is also a hardcore masterpiece.

Not enough, eh?

I have Mad Max: Fury Road sit in my Top Ten movies of the decade so far. Like, right? It just came out like four months ago…

I don’t care. I understand if this is overhyping it and I hope if you haven’t seen the movie, you go close this review and go watch the movie yourself before continuing so that you don’t have too high expectations for the movie. I mean, I had high as fuck expectations for the movie to begin with and it surpassed them, but hey… it’s not perfect. As Pauline Kael, the best movies are rarely perfect.

You know who was probably hyped as hell about this movie more than I am now? The director George Miller who spent a good 15 years developing what he wanted to do with the franchise from the trenches of Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome. 15 years, that’s enough time to sketch out the narrative scope of a film that is kind of well-known for being very minimalist with communicating its narrative. Where does the character of Max now stand emotionally, physically, and psychologically? Well, they weren’t using Mel Gibson anymore – between his growing disinterest with the project in the time it was taking to get off the ground, his obvious aging, and his even more obvious public image being tarnished by his many unfortunate racist and sexist rants. After the consideration of fellow Aussie actor Heath Ledger shortly before his untimely death, the Englishman Tom Hardy was cast as the character Gibson originated as. In this switch in casting, we’ve went from a wounded and morally confused warrior man to Hardy crafting a muted scavenger, not as able a combatant as Gibson’s Max as Hardy’s Max is just lucky and primal enough to make his strikes count and his words refuse to spare what little identity is left of Max to Charlize Theron’s co-starring performance as the militaristic survivalist Imperator Furiosa. Hardy’s grunts and manner reminds me extensively of Eli Wallach’s brilliant performance as Tuco in The Good, the Bad, the Ugly in a middle scene where he tersely demands items for his survival upon surviving a deadly desert heat in a similar manner to how Max has been living (I’d link the scene in question, but I honestly think if you haven’t seen THAT movie, it’s certainly more essential than Mad Max: Fury Road).

Or how about that 15 years to think about developing further the atmospheric post-apocalypse wasteland that was once Australia – how has it slowly moved on from its meltdown that occurred so far back in the history of Mad Max? Well, now the day-drenched environment is divided neatly into steely blue skies and searing yellow-orange dirt ground to split the horizon violently as the primary War Rig armored truck pushes through the hot desert air away from its pursuers through the Namibia desert playing the role of the Australian outback (it’s particularly beautiful how its night scenes are shot, in a darker blue that could easily allow every object on screen to melt into a whole if it weren’t for how boldly defined the shapes of the objects on screen are – trees, our heroes, the War Rig, et al. – credit to Miller and cinematographer John Seale for keeping a sharp eye for such a delicate composition). It’s not fully washed out this time around, it’s a long way from a complete world and the lack of balance in the sky and ground says it all. In the meantime, we see hints of three communities developed in their own dysfunctional manner that manages to make its perversity beyond Thunderdome‘s Bartertown feel like absolute law by manipulating distribution of resources to create desperate slaves of people. And we witness how one of them gets away with it in the form of Immortan Joe’s (Hugh Keays-Byrne returning for his second time as primary antagonist in a Mad Max picture) death cult and the War Boys that follow him into oblivion disguised as Valhalla and worship the steel chrome machines that accelerate them to their death.

The real devil in establishing this world rebuilt from civilization’s implosion comes in the details that production designer Colin Gibson and costume designer Jenny Beavan’s work in composing the visual elements of the Citadel’s twisted construction, the vehicles’ worn and hungry provision of glimmering fire to the chase, and the many clans we witness (and my, there’s a hell of a lot of different clans within this one movie, each one feeling like it has its own story to tell)… illustrating widely enough to as make us know damn sure there is more to the world beyond Seale’s frame with which he captures this massive vision.

But my oh my, look how I’ve gone without fully summing up the main premise of Miller, Brendan McCathy, and Nico Lathouris’ screenplay attempting to pack as much character and personality within the actual inner lives of some of the front-and-center characters. See, the movie is essentially a giant two-hour long chase with certain divisions in direction and subjects to the chases, but it does matter why the main chase exists. Which is that Furiosa herself is defecting from Immortan Joe and taking along with her five of Joe’s prized “Wives” – those ellipses used in the most cynical manner by me, I assure you – to help them all escape to an old land of Furiosa’s childhood memories; a dream of safety from the most literal form of the patriarchy you can provide in a post-apocalyptic atmosphere. In this sketching of Furiosa’s dreams as well as shaded hints of her regrets (when asked what she’s looking for by Max, she responds “redemption” – an inner struggle of hers that Max silently shares with sudden visions of dead faces Max is implied to have failed to save from violent fates), we see a vulnerability of Furiosa underneath her honestly hardened exterior and it anchors her emotionally as the most human character in the film without ever once underwriting how hard-boiled a motherfucker she is. This is essentially her story as told through Max’s eyes (and in this, we also still watch a dynamic story live within Max as the two’s interactions grow more and more instinctual and in sync without ever falling into the pitfalls of a romantic relationship).

In the meantime, we also have an arc in the form of Nicholas Hoult’s work as Nux, a particularly enthusiastic War Boy who stands out amongst the rest of their hordes in that he is the vessel through which Max is literally thrown into Furiosa’s scenario and then we see how his perspectives of the many sides of the primary conflict force him to reconsider his stance in this world gone wrong. It’s the sort of writing that basically does a lot of the actor’s work for him, but Hoult uses that spare energy to both let Nux feel in tune with the aggressive kineticism with which the movie smashes its way through its plot and setpieces and yet allowing Nux to feel almost just as much human an anchor to all the chaotic bombast of the film as Theron’s performance as Furiosa. There is no doubt about it, those two are best in show and not just because the script favors them.

It’s kind of easy by now to pick at the two major themes of the film – One being providing a commentary on patriarchal civilization and the prospect of gender equality in a world where it’s much easier to be savagely tyrannical and selfish than here and now, the other being a commentary on how religion is used to manipulate the desperate and huddled masses into subversion or self-sacrifice and how that reflects on both the monarch and his subjects. There’s a lot of other stuff I could point out, but those two are the obvious ones where you know I’m not grasping for straws to make Mad Max: Fury Road seem deeper than it is.

But in the meantime, maybe the one tick I’d have against Fury Road is noting that, while I don’t exactly hold against people’s consideration of the movie as feminist, I never personally found myself fully subscribing to the movie as portraying that ideal effectively. Certainly one that still has a very loud and clear declaration that all sexes are equal, but not one that celebrates the idea of femininity standing out in spite of suppression. And the reason for that is inherent enough in its premise that it’s hard to change without outright changing the movie essentially.

See, those five wives – played by Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, Riley Keough, Zoe Kravitz, Abbey Lee, and Courtney Eaton in a manner that despite the actresses valiant and worthwhile efforts are just barely distinguishable from each other – they still play a reductive role as damsels in distress. They’re not entirely helpless and if anyone has any right to be in hysterics for a time being, I’d expect it’d be victims of continuous rape in constant peril for the entirety of the film, and for a movie that only has so much to tell in a short amount of time, not everyone is going to be granted the amount of life in them that Max, Furiosa, and Nux have, but I do find it still reductive and a bit hard-hitting against any feminist intent (There is a third act revelation that I think actually foils this well enough to make me dismiss it afterwards, but I don’t think I can go into it without spoiling more than I want to. Damn it!).

OK, one more tick against the movie, some of the dialogue, in its effort to pick and choose what it can say before the movie goes “fuck it! This is too fucking slow!” is stilted and unnatural.

“Bullet farmers! They’re coming from the bullet farm!” No fucking shit. I would not hold it against anyone who makes that out to be the “NO MOAR DED CAWPS!” of 2015.

OK, I’m pushing 2000 words and I just feel like there’s two more things I need to point out – both having to do with how the story is told rather than what it’s telling now. Bear with me.

The first one, I’ve already been dropping hints about all around and that is the amount of aggressive momentum the movie has to it thanks to the editing work of Margaret Sixel while Junkie XL pounds an incredible bit of percussionary gunfire-sounding blasts that you’d have to call a score in that it seems to attach the movie’s speed as a action-driven ride and forces your heartbeat to catch the fuck up.

And the second thing. The really big thing that absolutely is why I love this movie as a masterpiece – the scale. Sure, we’ve seen big movies, we see them all the fucking time, but not this damn big. When you give money to somebody like George Miller, who has proved with his previous work in this shoestring franchise that Mad Max once was that he is efficient and wants that money to not just show up on the screen but to trick you into thinking there was more money to this than there actually was… oof! You’re gonna see where the hell it was put. 150 million dollars in order to bring out this universe popping out in chrome and rust have it fly around in setpieces that require the most deviant imagination to dream of pulling off, like a car chase in a sandstorm with a character forced at the exterior, the famous Doof Warrior bard for Joe’s hordes, the giant monstrous designs of the vehicles as they growl along with Junkie XL in the soundmix, oh man, my head hurts just imagining how Beavan and Gibson were able to stand strong amongst the demands a more of this operatic conceit without killing the fucking party or betraying the idea that we are meant to believe in this world the entire time and live in it.

But then again, they all had a man who believed he could create it. He had 15 years to think about how he wanted to do it. Miller was undoubtedly more hyped about this movie than anybody, myself included, could ever have been. Byron would have been proud to see how far their imagination had gone.

OK, well, I’m done gushing. Hope that came off restrained enough for you. And like I said, maybe one day it will die down and I’ll look at the movie with less admiration like my love for The Dark KnightThe Social Network, and many others have fallen (even though I still love both of those movies in particular with no small love).

But I doubt it. I really do doubt it. In the back of my mind right now I’m thinking about going to watch the movie in black and white with just the sound design. And it’s 5 fucking am that I am completing this. Just ’cause.

I mean, let me tell you guys something, I had a bad run of days coming to this point. And I think I deserve a chance to gush over a movie as amazing as Mad Max: Fury Road for the time being. Life’s too short not to enjoy the great experiences you have and it’s very rare that I can actually call a movie in itself an experience (as opposed to say seeing a movie with friends and how we interact with it).

That’s how Mad Max: Fury Road registered to me more than any other movie this year so far. A propelling, persistent experience. A raw one. An unforgettable one and yet I’m eager to revisit it right then and there.

CONFUCAMUS, MOTHERFUCKER!

The Maximum-er Force of the Future

In 1982, a picture under the name of The Road Warrior came in to the USA from the Australian outback and, alongside Peter Weir’s Golden Globe-nominated Gallipoli released the previous year, made a household name out of Mel Gibson and got him the attention of Hollywood (the movie was released in its native Australia on Christmas Eve of the year prior as well). Unbeknownst to most of that US audience that was enthralled by The Road Warrior, it was re-branded under that title due to the fact that it was a sequel to a movie that didn’t really get much of a proper release in America. Smartly, WB (who did NOT distribute the previous film) figured that people would be more likely to see Mad Max 2 if it didn’t arrive in the US with a title that implied they had to have seen a previous movie to understand it and that paid off a hell of a lot The Road Warrior became a big smash hit in North America, easily outgrossing there than it did in Australia (just to note: I’m going to refer to Mad Max 2 as The Road Warrior simply because it is easier for me to distinguish it from its predecessors that way).

Of course, while The Road Warrior stands alone as a self-contained narrative from Mad Max as all four films do, there is some amount of reward to watching it with the previous film in your mind. For one thing, the Australian outback backdrop of the previous already felt sparse and erratic has now become bone-dry bare and primal. Now that the passage of time has come between the two movies we can actually see that post-apocalyptic world that defined the franchise and was teased by the inevitable decline witnessed in the previous movie. But largely, to me, the biggest reward is how they thematically comment upon each other. For Mad Max was a movie that left our hero an absolute shell of a man, now his lack of character coming as a result of what’s happened to him rather than the unfortunate mix of uneffective acting and writing in the previous film (though I still love that movie with all my heart, as I do for the the entire series).

The Road Warrior begins in a manner of mythic storytelling from an unseen character describing Max (Gibson) as simply “The Road Warrior” and how he had performed the heroic deeds to be described in the picture and how he “learned to live again”. The Road Warrior already states in its opening that we are about to witness Max redeeming himself from his fall from humanity in the acts of revenge he performed in Mad Max, even if the environment itself won’t become any healthier.

By the opening of the second movie, Max has now become an island to himself, wandering the roads searching for precious relics of the world that died. He’s still getting into shit with gangs, though. Particularly one biker who takes a predatory manner to Max by the name of Wez (Vernon Wells) is after him at the opening and Max is just barely able to shake him off. In the hunt for gasoline, Max is also able to catch himself a prisoner of a Gyro Captain (Bruce Spence) who leads him to a nearby small community based in an oil refinery to spare. Arrangements get mixed up and Max ends up an unwelcome prisoner of Pappagallo (Michael Preston) and his community while Wez’ gang – headed by the true antagonist of the picture, the menacing and gladiator-esque Lord Humungus (Kjell Nilsson) – begins to threaten to run down the refinery’s inhabitants to take their precious guzzoline. Max makes a deal to help in their escape of Humungus’ attack with their gas and so begins his personal quest…

It’s actually a pretty sparse premise, with a straightforward arc for Max as a character. In fact, the plot is so bare bones, many of the characters aren’t really given names so much as acknowledgments to how they functioned in the credits. And yet I’d never think to call the film empty – as the substance lies in how much of the world is built in the backdrop of Max’s story and the personality that gives the film. Desolate, desperate, with Norma Moriceau’s costume design and Grace Walker’s art direction taking care to pick and choose what remnants of the old world of today should be given flashing glimpses in this broken one, and how should they be twisted to fit into the resourceless environment. At the same time, while tackling that concept, they also have to make sure to juggle between having it grounded with the viewer yet evoke some amount of epic mythic quality for the identification of our narrator – who elicits our excitement for what is to come before returning in the end to confirm how Max learned to give hope to others, even if he had very little in himself to spare. It very effectively is the sort of story one has to take from Mad Max, where our hero finds himself at lows he didn’t imagine being at the beginning of his plight, before deciding the only direction left for him to go in this world is up. And by painting these in broad strokes with the script, it allows the more subtle facets like how these characters use ammunition sparingly or have to choose carefully their alliances and antagonisms lest it break their chances of survival. It’s a big world out there implied that is made small and personal here.

And it’s still epic alright. Even, if the narration and the design didn’t give you that feeling, the final truck chase should cement that once and for all. Director George Miller and cinematographer Dean Semler bring back all that shockingly effective energy from this movie’s predecessor back by giving it the look of invention among the ragged armored manner of the vehicle, while editors David Stiven, Michael Balson, and Tim Wellburn begin to restrain themselves just a bit from the “BOOM! and then POW! and then CLANG!” of the first movie to allow the audience to behold the impressive scale of both our heroes’ scrappy machine and the villains’ predatory fleet. That probably comes from how remarkably minimal the action setpieces are in this film (I was actually very surprised there was not more action), but that doesn’t stop the three from kicking up the film’s momentum the moment any semblance of violence or tension comes to our heroes, particularly where the film is able to segue between Max’s charge past Humungus’ army with a tanker back into the oil refinery suddenly into an attempt to kick out the intruding Wez by any means without me even realizing this happened until everyone’s safe and I can catch my breath with them. It may just be the few action scenes, but they carry punch and weight and never seem to just be there for the sake of it. It’s a logical approach.

Watching The Road Warrior for the very first time in anticipation of Mad Max: Fury Road made me extremely fearful. The Road Warrior is such an amazing work of confidence in storytelling mixed in with once again shoestring economic filmmaking that I began to wonder if it was worth daring Fury Road to actually live up to the high bar The Road Warrior left, not only in action cinema. But in cinema as a whole. This is a movie that is able to feel larger than life and get away with it.