Thursday, 3 September 2015

Wednesday Thursday Reviews

Yes, it's late. The world is full of disappointments. Suck it up.

You know how occasionally you haven't seen a thing that most people have seen? A film or TV show? It happens. Life is short, the world is large, and distractions abound. The usual way of it is that someone will be quoting from the thing you haven't seen, while let's say chuckling doltishly to themselves, perhaps dribbling a little spittle down their chins and rolling their overly-moist eyes up into their skulls and rocking on the spot through the sheer delight of remembering something they liked. And you'll have to interrupt them and say, "I'm sorry, I'm afraid I haven't seen [whatever the thing is you haven't seen that most people have seen]." And they'll stare at you, and then reply, eight octaves too high, in a voice fairly drowning in incredulity, "You haven't seen [whatever the thing is]?" And you'll say, "Uhh, yeah, as I just said, I haven't seen [whatever the thing is]." And they'll stare at you some more, and then say, "You're seriously telling me you've never seen [whatever the thing]?" And you'll say, "Yep, that's what I'm saying." And they'll say, "What, like, never?" And this will go on for four and a half hours. And finally you'll say, "Look. This isn't some elaborate ruse. I'm not trying to trick you. Why can't you understand? I've just never seen [whatever], is all. Okay?" And they'll glance around, momentarily lost in an alien world where nothing makes sense to them any more... and then they'll recognise a friend in the distance, and they'll shout, "Kev, here, Kev, you will never bloody believe what this person hasn't seen!"

Anticipating a veritable slew of such lively back-and-forths with the release this week of a big-budget Mad Max videogame, and the knowledge that I'd never seen a single shoulder-padded, leather-lined, gas-guzzling minute of any of the Mad Max films, I went away and watched all of them. Every one. So now I'm just like you. We're the same. We're all morons together.

Here are some words from my brain about the different Mad Maxes:

Mad Max 1 (aka Mad Max)

This film is weird. For something called "Mad Max" it isn't very madmaxian. I don't know anything about Mad Max and even I can see that. There are barely any shoulder pads. There's not much sand, and what sand there is is on a beach, for Gibson's sake. Max hardly even gets mad -- and when he does he proceeds to get shot in the knee and then run over. Maybe it was the tightness of his leather trousers clouding his judgement.

There are lots of cars, and a smorgasbord of gay bikers, so it's not all bad, but still this is a disappointing experience.

People tend to think of this first film less in its own right and more as the piece that spawned a series, filtered through public consciousness, and influenced every post-apocalyptic movie, book, and videogame that came afterwards -- but it was also the inspiration, via its final scene involving a gruesome death trap, for the entirety of the Saw franchise, so good fucking going, I guess, guys.

Mad Max 2 (aka The Road Warrior)

Better. Dwindling resources, car fetishes, a hellish wasteland picked clean by a mankind eking out a grim existence in its final twilight days. It's like a Friday night in insert-name-of-smallish-town-near-your-town-here. Hey-o!

The film is frequently silly, often camp, and firmly a product of the 80s, but it's interesting nonetheless. Co-writer/director/creator George Miller has an idiosyncratic style that starts to shine through the more of these you watch. I can never tell whether he's better or worse than I expected him to be. In some ways Road Warrior is utterly in thrall to common action-movie tropes, in others it cynically subverts them. The plot is mostly clich├ęd and predictable, but then something you hadn't anticipated will happen and you'll find yourself knocked for six. There are frequent elements that aren't quite satisfying -- stretches without Max that would be referred to in screenwriting workshops as POV issues, story beats unfolding without fanfare, misalignments of the archetypal hero's journey -- and you're never (or at least I wasn't) sure how much it's intended.

The end result, though, is a film that's unlike any other genre work of the period, and vastly more intriguing than the bland written-by-committee fare of today, polished pablum where every script element performs exactly as expected and nothing ever surprises. This at least is markedly its own beast.

One other thing I liked: Max is rarely heroic, but when he is his heroism is real, i.e. it entirely eschews fame or recognition or reward. This makes him come across stranger and sadder and ultimately more human than his action-film counterparts, those strutting suave cool guys whose hair styles and demeanours and entire performances are exactly that: performance, an act, bravery designed to be seen, theatre intended to be maximally appealing to us the audience sat safely at home watching the good guys always triumph, allowing ourselves to believe this is what the world is like. Max isn't about that. Max survives, he does what he has to, and if his humanity is occasionally awoken and he helps others then he doesn't do it with a cocksure grin and a glint of whitened teeth and an adjustment of his cufflinks -- he does it after weighing up the cost to himself, looking inside to see whether he actually still cares about people, and then helping them for their sake, not his. In the wasteland, we sense, people become who they really are.

Mad Max 3 (aka Beyond Turnerdome)

Larger than Road Warrior but also less focused, more child and box-office friendly. The one where they went Hollywood, essentially. If the previous films' plots were predicated upon some weird internal logic that you could never tell whether it was actually logic or just inexperienced filmmaking, but screw it it was interesting, then Beyond Turnerdome feels like a film made with extensive input from the suits. Max meets a gaggle of kids who're basically the proto-Lost-Boys from Hook (seriously, what with Hook and Waterworld, and like every Saturday morning adventure cartoon, my childhood owes far more to Mad Max than I was aware), and it's hard to believe all these children weren't inserted to help skewer the succulent PG-13 market -- especially as the film progresses and you realise no one is dying, or if they are it's mostly off-screen where maybe they fell off the cliff into some water and they're all right, who knows, don't think about it kids.

The set design is gorgeous, though edging into self-parody. The plot has its moments, and the proto-Lost-Boys were at least unexpected, but there are inconsistencies and contrivances everywhere. Characters are forever collapsing in the middle of nowhere and then conveniently being stumbled upon and saved when they're on the verge of death. The good guys get themselves into situations they could never survive, but then by some fluke they surely couldn't have been planning for do end up surviving. And all roads apparently lead to Barter Town, the lavish main setting but what would realistically only be an insignificant blip in an endless desert were it not for having cost so much to build and maximum screen time needing to be squeezed from it. The chase scene is rubbish as well.

Though on the other hand, the shoulder-pad quotient is through the roof, and it's got Tina Turner in it. A solid 3/5 Gibsons.

Mad Max: Fury Road (aka Mad Max 4?)

The last chronologically, but the first I watched. I didn't understand any it of out of context, so I went back and watched it again after the others. It's good. It's really good.

It's one long chase sequence, essentially, a high-speed, white-knuckle blast of bright, kinetic action, the camera soaring and swooping around clunky Frankensteinian vehicles hurtling across the desert spitting fumes, careening into one another, exploding in gorgeous orange blooms against a fiery Valhallan sky. Fury Road's world is an unforgiving one, filled with the twisted and mistreated, almost everyone in some way damaged, deformed, suppurating, broken. It is quite the marvel, a vision exquisite in its grotesqueness.

And again those same Miller touches, the idiosyncrasies in plotting, the subversion of tropes, producing, as with Road Warrior before it, an action film dazzlingly different from its contemporaries.

The Max of this film is barely introduced before he is captured, bound, shaved, muzzled, and branded; his trusty V-8 Interceptor is destroyed, and he is left rotting in the fortress of a cult leader whose front-line-fodder band of war boys use Max as a universal donor to refill their sickly and presumably irradiated blood.

This sense of weakness, disempowerment, emasculation is hardly a typical way to showcase your protagonist -- and nor is it the shocking abuse that justifies the later bloodlust of a revenge thriller: Max does finally escape, but only to fall into more mishaps, to struggle onwards, to continue doggedly surviving.

Dialogue is sparse, characterisation minimal, but with the confidence of something that knows the right word or action can imply so much more than a million clumsy words or actions can state. Charlize Theron is brilliant as Furiosa, the fleeing lieutenant that the cult leader sends his war boys -- and by extension their blood-bag, Max -- to reclaim. Furiosa has a stump for an arm, a shaved head, grime all over her; nothing about her is glamourous or sexualised. She looks precisely as old as Theron is (late-30s considering the few years the film spent in post-production), and she radiates beauty, strength, depth, and occasional vulnerability. Tom Hardy is a good Max, skittering and twitchy, a man reduced to an insect-level existence, living moment to moment, yet sometimes finding scraps of his old humanity not yet peeled away by the blowing winds and burning sands. His Australian accent is the pits, but that's my only complaint.

There's an excellent three-way fight between Furiosa and Max and the emaciated war boy who Max is chained to (played with wide-eyed lunacy and a touch of sweetness by About a Boy's Nicholas Hoult). The upper-hand belongs to one, then the other, then another, no one is quite sure whose side anyone is on, and it's all filmed to be violent, clumsy, slightly humourous, and hard to predict. And this is the larger film, too. A riotous journey, brutal, unique and unrelenting. A fitting return: the best of the lot, I reckon.

Now I wonder what that videogame is like...