Mad Max: Furiosa’s Movie (a review)

poster

If you are looking to have your mind blown away by astounding visuals and amazing stunt work, blinding sandstorm apocalypses and psychotic banshees, mind-searing explosions and grotesque examples of human depravity, then you should really see Mad Max: Fury Road.

If you’re more interested in carefully constructed characters trying to make sense of a world gone mad, learning to cooperate even with their most hated enemies if only to survive and in the process, learning more about themselves as humans, then go watch Lord of the Flies (YouTube), because Mad Max: Fury Road has none of that.

I liked the movie. I liked it a lot. But I never engaged in the movie.

Throughout my time watching it, it remained a movie that stimulated my retinas and ear drums, but never reached my brain or my heart or my gut.

(NOTE: Some spoilers may follow.)

To summarize the plot:

Tanker truck driver Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron) is sent on a mission to go from the Citadel, a collection of humans controlled by the self-described demi-god Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne), to deliver fuel and mother’s milk (you have to see it to believe it) to Gastown, presumably another citadel situated across the desert.

As she heads off with her armed escort—this is post-apocalyptic, gang-ravaged Australia, after all—Furiosa veers off the road, taking everyone into the desert. Unbeknownst to everyone else, she has stowaways aboard; Joe’s five prized breeder women whom he is using to build his master race (think Sister Wives meets TLC’s 19 Kids and Counting). Furiosa is taking the women to security in the mystical Green Place.

Mothers of future warlords (Sister Wives meet 19 Kids & Counting)

Mothers of future warlords (Sister Wives meet 19 Kids & Counting)

Learning that this has happened and that his fertility harem is gone, Joe calls out his troops and signals Gastown to do same, and a two-pronged pursuit across the desert is on.

Further complicating matters for Furiosa is her need to fight off the marauding gangs that litter the desert-scape between the towns and who want to steal her precious fuel.

Chase into sandstorm best part of movie

Chase into sandstorm best part of movie

That gets you started on the story. Much more and we’re in spoiler territory…although, there are few revelations in this film that could get spoiled.

The one thing you may have noticed about my plot summary is the absence of Max (Tom Hardy), the title character of this film and the three originals of the series. That’s because, for about half of the movie, Max is just along for the ride (in some cases, quite literally).

Universal blood donor Max (Tom Hardy) is mostly along for the ride

Universal blood donor Max (Tom Hardy) is mostly along for the ride

Without question, after an initial misunderstanding, Max helps Furiosa in her journey—that is what Max does in these movies—but this is Furiosa’s journey and thus, her movie.

One of the challenges I have with the story and in retrospect, possibly one of the reasons the film never engaged my heart or gut, is I don’t ever recall learning why Furiosa is helping the women escape. From the outset, she seems to have a position of prestige within the Citadel, even if it is Hell incarnate. And while we do later get a sense of her long-term desire to leave, I still don’t recall the reason why she would jeopardize her escape by taking the women.

Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron) just wanted a peaceful drive in the desert

Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron) just wanted a peaceful drive in the desert

Although Joe is obviously angry at the betrayal, the fuel for his pursuit is the reclamation of his harem. Furiosa made her life more difficult by taking them, which would be fine if I understood why. People make outwardly rash decisions all the time in film—else there would be no film industry—but they always have an internal rationale for the decision that the audience can appreciate. That did not exist here.

Likewise, I didn’t understand why these women were so important to Joe. Yes, they were the most attractive of the fetid bunch that we see onscreen, but I am confident that they could have been replaced more easily than the fuel that was used in their reclamation. Even if it was just ego, show me that.

Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne) is Leader of the Pack and universal sperm donor

Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne) is Leader of the Pack and universal sperm donor

I’m not expecting nuance in these characters—that would probably get you killed in this environment—but I would like to understand more about the rationales inside their heads.

The other thing that kept me from engaging was—to borrow a metaphor from This is Spinal Tap—that writer/director George Miller turned the dial to 11 the moment the chase started and largely left it there throughout the movie.

There is no denying that this provided a rush, much like being strapped to the nose of a bullet train, but after a handful of minutes like that, it just becomes normal. Rather than slowly escalate through the film and let me see that the next threat was more gruesome than the last, it was just one long chase scene with the same ever-present threat.

Sure, there were moments of quiet and introspection—if nothing else to provide exposition for where we are and what we’re doing—but the transitions there were like cranking the dial from 11 to 1 and then cranking it back up to 11.

This is largely why I say there is nothing to really spoil in discussing this story…there was nothing that really shocked the audience or caught them off guard. The cinematic experience was beautifully choreographed, but someone forgot to pull up the footmarks from the floor, so the audience was always aware if the next scene was going to be a tango, a waltz or the cha-cha.

But hey, this is an action film, and if it provided one thing, it was ACTION (all caps because that’s how much action it provided).

Like the man in the old Maxell Tapes advertising, you will be blown away by this experience. But when the lights go up, you will straighten your clothes, brush your hair and find yourself completely unaffected by this movie. Just a couple of hours at an amusement park.

Oh, and as for Max, all you really need to know is: yeah, he’s still messed up about his family (see Mad Max Movie #1), but he’s largely a good guy.

Lessons from bad movies – The Canyons

canyons poster

I believe that you can learn something from every experience you have, and because I am trying to learn more about screenwriting and films, this means watching bad movies. Thus, I was intrigued when I saw Netflix was showing a film called The Canyons.

Written by Bret Easton Ellis (American Psycho) and starring Lindsay Lohan and porn-star-going-legit James Deen, The Canyons shows the decay of Hollywood through the eyes of a struggling young actor who is still in love with his former girlfriend who is now the adornment of an unbalanced but oh-so-controlled producer on a trust fund. Paranoid from birth, the producer eventually learns of rekindled flames between the two and slowly his self-control ebbs. To tell you more would be to spoil the (complete lack of) surprise in this film.

Although the story was straightforward and highly predictable, I have to admit to being confused by one very big thing: I don’t know who the protagonist is. Through whose eyes is the audience supposed to see this story?

Lindsay Lohan’s Tara (the girlfriend) shares almost equal screen time with James Deen’s Christian (producer) and Nolan Gerard Funk’s Ryan (actor), and the story’s perspective seems to shift on a whim. If I go purely by a scale of which character left me feeling least icky in their behaviour, I would have to say Ryan was the protagonist. But he feels more like an unwitting pawn in this film.

Interestingly, however, if I was forced onto a limb, I would actually say Christian was the protagonist despite his antagonist schtick. As a character, he is reminiscent of American Psycho’s Patrick Bateman…possibly his baby brother…although there is no comparison between Christian Bale’s performance and James Deen’s.

Speaking of which, the wooden performances of the actors don’t help my quest for a protagonist. (At her best, Lohan’s glamour-gone-gory Tara was reminiscent of Ann-Margret’s characters in Carnal Knowledge and Tommy at their most strung out.) Without distinct emotive clues and any sense of subtext, I really have no clue what any of the characters hopes to accomplish…there simply aren’t any goals, again with the possible exception of Ryan.

Lohan-Margret

To continue piling on, I would be intrigued to find out what kind of movie director Paul Schrader thought he was making.

On the one hand, with rampant over-use of black & white images of derelict movie houses, it seemed Schrader was going for art-house film, using the photographic decay as a metaphor for the social decay of Hollywood (this is the man who wrote Taxi Driver and directed American Gigolo).

At the same time, his rampant insertion of lengthy scenes of graphic sex gave the film a B-movie, soft-core porn feel. Here, Schrader may have been going for a moral decadence metaphor, but if so, I think he failed terribly. Instead, we were left with a humping morass of buttocks and breasts that a 13-year-old boy couldn’t be bothered to whack off to.

the-canyons-04_article

But the one scene that truly grabbed my attention was a lunch conversation between Tara and Christian’s assistant Gina, played by Amanda Brooks. What caught my attention, however, was not the scintillating or captivating dialogue (there wasn’t any) or the repressed subtextual exchanges (they were incapable) but rather the fact that even the camera was unable to pay attention to the scene.

On either close up, the camera angle perpetually slid to the left or the right, and sometimes back again. Not panned to capture a background element. Slid, as if someone had forgotten to tighten the flange that holds the camera to the tripod. The camera literally nodded off.

So then, if this movie was so bad, how could I learn a lesson?

The lesson of The Canyons is that if you can get an actor of sufficient name recognition who is trying to prove something (e.g., I’m not washed up) interested in your script, you can get anything made.

 

Postscript:

As I looked up some background facts on this movie, I learned that The Canyons was the first film to be largely funded via crowd-sourcing. Given the performance of subsequent crowd-sourced films like Zach Braff’s Wish I Was Here (poor) and Kristen Bell’s Veronica Mars (modest), I am beginning to wonder if there isn’t some merit in studios having some influence on whether and how a film gets made.

Impractical joke

pie-in-face

Believe it or not, for several years, I worked in a hospital research lab. (Won’t mention which Toronto hospital lest people stop taking their sick children there.)

What I hadn’t realized until one fateful day was that not only was I a pretty good biochemist, but I was also a damned fine engineer…when motivated.

And what better motivation than a plate of whipped cream to the face. Really, the old pie-in-the-face chestnut.

And the chortling culprit was a friend who worked across the hall. (I won’t name names because Andy, who was still quite green then, is now a medical practitioner.)

We laughed. Boy, I sure look silly. You got me. And now…you must die (of embarrassment)!

Doing my best MacGuyver, I set to work.

Pyrex baking dish? Check.

Cling film? Check.

Wood block? Check.

Masking tape? Check.

Water? Double check.

Tools

The plan was simple. Convince A.G. that he had a research paper we needed in his desk drawer, which we had booby trapped with a tray of water.

When he opens the drawer, AHA!

Oh wait, the tray will slide backwards.

Support the tray in the drawer so it doesn’t slide, and AHA!

Nuts, even if he pulls the drawer forward, Conservation of Momentum says the water will slosh the other way.

Cover most of the tray with cling wrap so the water has nowhere to go and sloshes back all the more forcefully, and then AHA!

Oh but why would he sit down to open the drawer…they slide so easily.

Stick masking tape under the upper rim of the drawer so he has to yank it open, and then… (Aha, right?)

Yes, Aha.

AHA!

To avoid suspicion, I had a mutual friend ask Andy for the paper…he sat at his desk and tugged the drawer, but it was stuck. Sitting at the desk, he pulled harder and yanked the drawer open. And was hit with a wall of water that completely drenched his lower half.

AVENGED!

He wandered the halls looking like the Lusitania went down in his pants.

It may all be quite silly to you, but to this day, this represents my greatest engineering feat…something that, for me, rivals the Pyramids of Egypt and those irritating metal ring puzzles.

Booby trap

(This silly memory prompted by yesterday’s post by Ned Hickson about his fake poo…you think it’s easy being this juvenile?)

Enemy—The movie with the meta title

Enemy

So, it was $5-Tuesday yesterday at the Carlton Cinema in Toronto and a friend invited me to see a movie called Enemy, starring Jake Gyllenhaal. Like any weary movie-goer, I immediately jumped online to look at the trailer and thought, “Hmmm, weird, but interesting”.

I was half right. The movie was weird.

At this point, I should probably say “SPOILER ALERT”, but truth be told, I am not sure that if I laid out every event that occurred in this movie, you would know what was happening. I sat through it and I don’t know what happened.

As the trailer indicates, the movie is about a man who is dissatisfied with his life—never explains why, he just is—and is merely going through the motions of living until one day when he realizes that his exact doppelganger lives in town.

Terrified at this revelation—never explains why, he just is—he is nonetheless drawn to his twin and after jumping through a series of over-complicated hoops, he meets the twin. At which point, he second-guesses his decision and it is his twin’s turn to go neurotic—never explains why, he just does.

As you may have guessed from my above repetition of “never explains why”, my greatest issue with this movie is unclear character motivation. Perhaps it says more about me and my life history, but I have no idea why any of these characters acts as extremely as they do.

I am confident that it is part of the artistic conceit of the piece that at numerous moment are you fully sure which Jake Gyllenhaal character you are watching onscreen. The challenge with this is that the emotional rollercoaster of each of the characters is such that from cut-to-cut within the same scene, I am never sure which Jake Gyllenhaal character I am watching. I ended up watching the characters’ clothing rather than the actor’s face to try to follow the story.

And the motivations of the secondary characters are just as muddy for me, although at least here, we have different actors and so don’t have the Gyllenhaal rabbit hole with which to contend. Like a faucet tap, the emotions of these characters change with a flick—questioning in one moment, horny in the next, and angry in the third, and all in the span of 30-45 seconds.

A definite statement of who I am, I spent much of the movie trying to predict the reveal of the story based on the clues or purely on conjecture.

Twins separated at birth? Time travel with a glitch? Parallel universes collide? Psychotic episode of one man leading two lives?

No SPOILER ALERT to say none of these came to fruition, but that still doesn’t mean that any of them may not be true. Hell, all of them might be true. I don’t know.

And any hope of a conclusion is muddied by a massive metaphor that scurries through this movie—I won’t tell you what it is—and yet offers no satisfying explanation.

Enemy is described everywhere as a thriller. I’d be more inclined to call it a puzzler…and even that may be too lofty. Head-scratcher and headache-giver might be more accurate.

As I read up on the movie to write this, I learned the film won Canadian Screen Awards (our Oscar) for Best Director and Best Supporting Actress, and was nominated for Best Film. I find that disturbing.

The film was based on the 2002 novel The Double (O Homem Duplicado), by Portuguese author José Saramango. Part of me wants to find the novel to see if it is any clearer than the movie, but as of this moment, a bigger part of me just wants to walk away from this entire episode in my life.

 

Previous posts about characters in writing and film:

Just Tell The Story – Austin Film Festival

The Dignity of Characters

A Matter of Character

Can You Relate?

I Am Always Right (Motivation)

Dara Marks at Toronto Screenwriting Conference 2013

Unpacking Baggage (Part One)

Unpacking Baggage (Part Two)

Failure is not an option…it’s a skill

Fear-of-failure

I used to be terrified of failure. If I couldn’t know that I would succeed at something, I would put it off and potentially never do it.

And this was true in all aspects of life.

Driving. Dancing. Playing musical instruments. Talking to girls and later women. Athletics.

I became the best I could at one or two things—the things for which I seemed to have a natural aptitude—to avoid having to worry about being asked to do any of a thousand other things.

To me, failure was not an option. (I could spend months discussing why, but I won’t…at least, not here).

It has taken me a long time, but I have finally realized that I was only half right.

failure_success

Failure is not an option…it is an imperative.

It is a skill that I must practice time and time again in all aspects of life.

At its simplest, if I succeeded at everything to which I turned my hand, I would stop doing it.

I succeeded. I achieved my goal. What more could I hope to accomplish? Everything after that is pure redundancy and repetition.

When harnessed, however, failure and imperfection can be that thing that drives me forward, when purely creative urges do not.

ziglar

Failure is my teacher. Failure is my drill sergeant and mentor. And yes, failure can be my devil.

Perfection is an illusion and is therefore unattainable. This means that even at our zenith, we have failed. So what?

Even if we do not strive for perfection, but for an attainable, measurable goal, we are likely to fail if for no other reason than once we have achieved that goal, we instinctively move the goal posts. Our best is always a thing of the past and acts as a goad for us to do better.

Herein also lays the further challenge of failure in Art. There typically is no real metric other than external opinion. Rare is the individual who targets using 7.83% magenta in his next painting.

coyote

Wile E. Coyote is about the only artist I know who can actively test the realism of his Art. He has achieved his goal if the Roadrunner runs into the cliff wall painted to look like a tunnel. Ironically, his downfall was the hyperrealism he achieved such that the painting actually became a tunnel. In succeeding, he found failure.

Where I used to fear failure, I now embrace it. I use it to stretch myself and my skills. I use it as a lesson plan.

Failure-is-not-falling-down-but-refusing-to-get-up

But for this to work, I must envision failure as something internal and self-defined rather than something external and based on the opinions of others. There lies madness.

Yes, I rely on feedback garnered from others to determine my degree of success, but I do not allow others to define that success.

It is my Art. I define it and in doing so, define myself. And to do that, I must fail and fail again.

failure-and-success

(Images are property of owners and are used here without permission, which may be an epic failure on my part.)

Music to my ego

Like fish

When you first start exploring any art form, you are typically rapt in the joy of expression, but you are also at your most ego-vulnerable. Thus, it is nice every now and again to receive some positive feedback and it is even better when that feedback comes from someone who represents your art’s industry (rather than your mom).

As many of you know, one of my screenplays was a Second Rounder in the 2013 Austin Film Festival screenplay competition. Part of achieving that status is receiving readers’ notes that explain why you moved forward in the competition and why you stopped. A couple of days ago, I received the notes for my feature Tank’s.

Wow.

Below, I offer some of the positive feedback (I received negative too).

An exhilarating, imaginatively conceived, meticulously crafted, professionally polished animation intended fairy tale, a love story set in the cosmos of fish.”

Obviously the work of a talented, experienced writer who knows animated light comedy, how it works, and how to do it.”

The linear narrative is redeemed, however, by the enthralling depiction of fish as people, their humanly drawn nautical universe, and a buoyant, lighthearted mood pervading the narrative.”

Is the writer competitive here with, say, the creative minds at Pixar? Without question, yes.”

“The storytelling is befitting of the silly/adult humor of Dreamworks while still maintaining the light family-friendly air of a Disney cartoon musical.”

Kind of makes me want to keep writing, you know?

JB

(Images are property of owners and are used here without permission because I am that good)