Mad Max: Fury Road

My wife was again up for another action film so we went to see Mad Max: Fury Road, maybe in part because I pitched to her that it was sitting at an incredible 98% on the Rotten Tomatoes tomato-meter, with over 200 reviews (including from magazines like Vanity Fair and the New Yorker ).

My wife cautioned that I might be disappointed with that level of hype, and I agreed. I tried to drop my expectations a notch, although admittedly they were still pretty darn high.

A plot summary may be read here at IMDb.

Sure enough, Mad Max: Fury Road  is topnotch for what it is: a post-apocalyptic thrill ride and a visual extravaganza. The direction is just about as good as one could hope for this type of film–George Miller outdid himself. And it easily passed my most basic litmus test of whether I cared what happened to the protagonists. The acting performances are all great.

I was happy for Thomas Hardy that he turned in a rock solid performance that no one will make fun of (after his The Dark Knight Rises ‘ Bane–although I’m in the minority of fans that loved his portrayal of the character–and his Dr. Evil-like Shinzon in Star Trek: Nemesis). 

But Charlize Theron’s character Imperator Furiosa is as much the star of this film as Max is. It is as much her story as it is Max’s.

Zoe Kravitz gives a standout performance as one of the spunkier “breeder” women that Furiosa and Max are protecting. And Melissa Jaffer is memorable as the Keeper of the Seeds. Nicholas Hoult it fine as Nux, although I’m not sure that the film really needed the Nux character.

This movie is all about maintaining tension visually, and it succeeds at that brilliantly–and lavishly. It is strung extremely taut throughout; and the film manages to actually increase the tension in the final act, which is pretty amazing in hindsight. Tension-wise, this movie like watching a horse race in which the lead changes hands several times, and it ends in a near photo-finish.

Also with respect to the visual spectacle, the film is replete with the freakishly grotesque characters that we’re used to from the earlier Mad Max films; although I’m can’t quite say that we get any to top Lord Humungus, Wez, the Gyro Captain, and the Feral Kid from Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior. In this film Imortann Joe is certainly very imposing, though. Rictus Erectus, on the other hand, basically seems to be interchangeable with Wez (although Wez was more colorful).

I guess there was a slight letdown for me in that for very dark, oppressive, bleak dystopian fictional settings (I’m not particularly a fan of them), I need a story or characters that truly surprise me to make it a five star experience. There has to be something innovative about that for me to like the film tremendously. I did not really get that here. The feminist theme that enslaved women (although it seems everyone in Imortann Joe’s enclave is his slave) were taking charge to free themselves was nice to see, but there was nothing particularly inspired about it. Then again, that was really just an added benefit for a film like this–which is not so much about depth of story, but rather blowing us away with the visual experience.

Anyway, it was a good time and the film was enjoyable. My wife and I both enjoyed Mad Max: Fury Road. I doubt it’s a film that I’ll watch again. But it was pretty neat to see on the big screen in 3D. A fun night out.

Addednum: Spoiler to follow:

My wife had an interesting observation to make: Furiosa and her party end up right where they started–although in order for change to occur Furiosa clearly needed to do what she did. My wife was not prepared to assign a possible meaning to this, such as may be intended by the director. But she did note the irony.

Furiosa cannot quite be said to be seeking a paradise, but the longed for “Green Place” virtually is that in contrast with the psychotically nightmarish hell-on-earth Imortann Joe has created. There was also the theme of warriors’ belief in Valhalla. So we see in this film an overpowering motivation to seek a Utopian vision: either in the afterlife (on the part of the bad guys) or on earth (sought by this film’s heroes). Max of course would never put stock in any either vision. As he says in the opening narration, he has become the embodiment of the survival instinct, pure and simple. (Although that said, it is interesting to note that Max clearly favors prosocial order and individual freedom.)

A movie like this does not really need a “deeper message” (and it already has a laudable feminist twist). But perhaps if there is one to be drawn from it, perhaps it is that we must never give up in striving to do what is right to make the world a saner, more egalitarian, prosocially nurturing, free, and peaceful place, even when the odds seem insurmountable. We will thereby meaningfully change the world we actually inhabit, rather than transform it into something altogether different. The trick is to identify what you actually can do something about, envision what you wish to do with it, and put a plan into action. It does seem that the impulse to imagine a grand vision of ‘an ideal world that could be’ ironically drives us forward, though. (Unless you’re like Max. Which is, um, not desirable! Better that we be Furiosa!)

Mad Max: Fury Road

The Dark Knight Rises

Over the next week (the last week of my break before the winter quarter of school) I’m on a kind of movie watching mission. So I’ll probably be posting about a number of films. I hope I can get to this anyway.

I got around to watching The Dark Knight Rises last night and I did enjoy it, even if this is the least favorite among most fans of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy, starring Christian Bale as Batman. I should add also that of any superhero I probably have the least fondness for the how the Batman character has been translated to the silver screen. Thus I’ll be posting about both my response to this particular film, and more generally about the character itself.

One of my friends who is also a superhero film buff like myself warned me that Thomas Hardy’s Bane character uses an over-the-top, goofy voice in this picture. I cannot dispute that that is fair to say. But it didn’t bother me–and in fact I actually kind of enjoyed it. I do laugh at it but, oddly, I still buy-in to the character at the same time. Superhero villains are typically larger-than-life ego-maniacs. They’re psychopaths that have also often been driven mad by something in their past. This Bane characterization runs with that with a kind of aplomb. I think Thomas Hardy gave us an evocative villain who is both highly colorful and chilling. Anyway, Bane worked for me.

Christian Bale does a fine job as Batman. He manages to convey a seriousness to the part that has eluded most of the other actors that have played Batman. Bale’s only rival is Michael Keaton. And I don’t find Bale as relatable as Michael Keaton was. But then again Michael Keaton has never fit my conception of Batman and I’m never quite able to get past that. So I suppose that’s a wash when comparing the two actors in this role. (Do we really need to discuss Val Kilmer and George Clooney?)

I thought Anne Hathaway’s performance as Selina Kyle, aka the Catwoman, was excellent. Loved it. She delivered the right mix of outer sultriness, confidence woman, and self-centeredness; yet with believable vulnerability and humanity still accessible somewhere inside.

The story and action are well put together for this film. It’s a taut action flick. As some film-goers have observed, Batman’s recovery time for an ostensible broken back is simply too fast. But that said, it is never explicitly stated in the film that his back is literally broken. So perhaps the chiropractic remedies he gets could be sufficient.

Now, the more difficult part of this review for me to summarize is my feelings about problems that I see with how the Batman character has been adapted to cinema. Let me begin with a disclaimer: I am not strongly familiar with the evolution of the character, and I have never read any of the Frank Miller novels. But it is obvious to me that Batman has become a tragic Gothic character in modern times. There’s a certain grotesqueness to the character now, and he is psychologically rather twisted. I’m not saying that this isn’t a more compelling vision of the character than the sanguine one I grew up with in the comic books of the 60s and 70s (and certainly in the 60’s TV show, although that was a spoof of the character). But for the rosier Batman of early times, Batman’s credo to “never use guns or kill” worked for that more innocent time and culture. In our modern and more complex world, and with Batman also much more of a psychologically grotesque and maimed figure, it doesn’t seem to hold together very well. On the one hand, I can appreciate remaining true to the core element of the character. But on the other hand, it just seems increasingly implausible to uphold such a standard when Batman is battling armies that are unleashing massive lethal fire power. For then the credibility of the character is (for me) strained to the breaking point.


(Selina agrees with me!)

The same issue exists for Superman, who in Man of Steel  faces the same dilemma about the same rule. It’s controversial among comic book superhero fans, and I do respect the feelings of those who favor keeping this cornerstone element of the character intact. But I ultimately side with those who favor a more complex character that is sometimes unfortunately forced take lives in order to save others. (Note: For the first six months following the character’s inception Batman did use a gun and had no compunction about killing. But the character’s motivation to fight crime was developed in 1939 (well before the Comics Code Authority) in which Batman’s vow to never kill after witnessing his parents’ murder in a mugging is established as a core theme.)

I guess where I have come down is that while I respect remaining true to the vision of the character, it doesn’t really work for me anymore that the Batman could successfully maintain such a standard. Normally it’s effortless to buy-in to a comic book superhero because the premise is so fantastic to begin with. But in this case the ‘willing suspension of disbelief’ that fiction requires is more strained than usual–and for me to the point that it intrudes.

***

Addendum: For my own idiosyncratic taste, I would have to say that I actually enjoyed this film more than Batman Begins and The Dark Knight. I’m sure that I will be in a very small minority there. But here are the reasons:

By the time I got around to seeing The Dark Knight Heath Ledger’s performance had been so over-hyped that it was almost impossible to meet expectations. Ledger played a creepy, twisted sociopath and sure enough he was unrecognizable as the actor. It was a very good performance. But I honestly didn’t find anything that exceptional about it. I honestly don’t remember much of the story other than it featured the Joker.

And to my mind, Batman begins felt a bit tired to me in that it has Liam Neeson essentially reprising his Star Wars role of Qui-Gon Jinn–although of course he turns out to be a bad guy rather than good. The establishing of the Bruce Wayne/Batman character from childhood through late early adulthood is entertaining to watch–and for the cinematic universe it needs to be told. But as I mentioned I am not that strong a fan of Frank Miller’s grim and Gothic vision of Batman.

I think the main reason that I found The Dark Knight Rises to be the most entertaining of the trilogy is that I was most pleasantly surprised by its villain, of the three films. Thomas Hardy’s much maligned “goofy” or “over-the-top” voice made me laugh, yes; but in a way that drew me in and that I found engaging. It actually worked for me because it reinforced the central idea that any character that would have such an agenda such as Bane’s is, to begin with, totally nuts. So the “over-acting” is to me more like an actor a person sticking his finger in the air as an exclamation point. There is a sort of reckless abandon to this extremely off-the-wall character, and Hardy embraces it with it with aplomb. Bane was, for my taste, the most original and unexpected villain of the three Nolan Batman films.

Disclaimer: I can easily understand that true comic book fans that are well versed in superhero histories probably have a very different reaction. In terms of accepting a film mostly on its own terms, I have the advantage (?) as a viewer of never having read the Frank Miller novels; or for that matter knowing much more of the Batman character than I got from the comic books I bought between 1967 to around the early seventies.

The Dark Knight Rises