Sunday, May 24, 2015

Film Review: Mad Max - Fury Road

Full Disclosure: my wife and I went to see Pitch Perfect 2, but it was sold out.  So we reluctantly purchased tickets for the latest Mad Max movie.  I have never been fan of the series.  The bleakness and ugliness of that universe never appealed to me.  So it was with a fair amount of reluctance that I sat down to watch the Mad Max: Fury Road.

And it was thrilling.

The insanity of the world created by writer/director George Miller belies an amazingly tight narrative.  Most action movies are a series of different explosive action set pieces.  Fury Road is essentially one long, exhilarating action chase scene.

The story begins with Max Rockatansky (Tom Hardy) being run down and caught by a group of "war boys" who worship a crazy cult leader called "Immortan Joe" (Hugh Keays-Byrne).  Joe runs a wasteland compound where he controls the flow of fresh water, keeping his people dependent on him.  He keeps an economic relationship with other feudal kingdoms of "Gastown" and the "Bullet Farm."  His crazed war boys believe that if they die in glorious battle for Joe that they will forever in Valhalla.  Max happens to be O-Negative blood type and so is set said as a "blood bag" to refresh the blood of the irradiated war boys, particularly the zealous Nux (Nicholas Hoult).

All of this set up is told incredibly efficiently so as to set up the main story.  Joe sends a caravan to Gastown lead by Imerator Furiosa (Charlize Theron).  But when she suddenly goes off course (for reasons we discover later), Joe summons the full strength of Gastown, the Bullet Farm, and all of his war boys to pursue them.  Nux, still in need of Max's blood, hooks his "blood bag" to the front of his car and thus the great chase begins.

Much has been already written about the epic car stunts in this film and they are not hyperbolic.  Much of the film was done with practical effects rather than CGI, which gives the action a rawness and weight and visceral punch.  You can feel the pressure of acceleration and you feel rocked with each crash.  This is a film of a young and hungry director, which is what impresses me so much about 70-year-old George Miller's fast and furious spectacle.  It is crazy in a way that should be outright silly.  But when the inmates run the asylum, normal logic is thrown out the window.  The production design drips with insanity that follows from some kind of crazed function.  Why is there a giant truck with 6 drummers and a flame-throwing guitar player?  Because this is the world that is broken!

The performances are outstanding.  The script trusts that the actors and director will be able to convey enough meaning and emotion with very little.  Hardy is great as Max.  Mel Gibson is one of the finest actors I have ever seen, but Hardy brings the same level of intensity and anger, all the while making the part his own.  You truly believe that Max could either shoot a frightened woman in the face or risk his life to save her.  Hardy makes this contradictory nature believable.  And the smallest gestures of kindness or encouragement carry incredible weight.

Theron is also great and honestly should get an Oscar nomination for this performance.  She reminded me of what Russell Crowe did in Gladiator.  She is smart, strong, and stoic.  She uses a cold, violent calculous to save those that she can.  Both she and Hardy have to carry the movie with mostly their non-verbals, which they do flawlessly (which should be no surprise for anyone who saw Hardy's amazing performance as Bane in The Dark Knight Rises).

The world is violent, disgusting, and ugly.  The movie is R-Rated and rightly so.  The violence is bloody and over-the top.  But the movie ironically uses a great deal of discretion.  A key element of the story is the sexual enslavement of women and yet the movie never shows you the women being abused in this way.  The movie is an odd style of gratuitous violence that is not exploitative.

One of the things I was surprised by in this story was the emphasis on human redemption.  There are truly evil, despicable people in this movie.  And yet even those that appear brainwashed beyond any hope show signs of humanity.  Max himself narrates at the beginning that he has been reduced to one instinct: survive.  But despite himself, he cannot let go of his nagging conscience.  Even when it makes no sense, he must do what is right.

And this makes the struggle for virtue so intense and powerful.  It is easy to be moral when life is care-free.  It feels impossible when the world has gone mad.  This movie makes the struggle for basic humanity feel heroic and epic when set in relief against this wasteland.

I especially love something Max says late in the movie about hope.  Hope cannot be something that is empty wishing and wanting.  Hope has to be based in resolution.  You have to be willing to fix what is broken.  Hope, without the will to work for the change, is empty.

In the end, Mad Max: Fury Road is the perfect escapist film for anyone who loves over-the-top action and the fun of some bloody mayhem (with a sprinkling of redemption on the side).

 4 out of 5 stars.

Remembering Pentecost

It has probably happened a lot more than I can recall, but this I cannot remember a time when Pentecost and Memorial Day so closely overlapped.

Memorial Day is the time when we as Americans remember the sacrifice of those men and women who came before us and laid down their lives on the altar of freedom for our country.  The Jewish idea of "remembering" is not simply recollection; it is to make the past present.  When we "remember" we bring those from the past present to our lives.

And I thought it would be appropriate to take a moment to remember those who were in the upper room at Pentecost.  They received the Holy Spirit and were called to go forth and lay down their lives on the altar of freedom: freedom from sin and death.

And what happened to them all?

The Virgin Mary lived out her natural life and was eventually Assumed body and soul into Heaven.

But what about the remaining 12?

44 AD - James the Greater is beheaded by Herod Agrippa

51 AD - Matthias, Judas Iscariot's replacement, is stoned to death and beheaded in Jerusalem.

60 AD - on November 30th, Andrew is dies on a decussate cross in Greece

62 AD - Bartholomew (Nathaniel) is skinned alive and crucified in modern day Iran

67 AD - Peter is condemned to crucifixion under Nero.  After stating that he was not worthy die the same way as the Lord, the Romans crucify our first pope upside-down on Vatican Hill.

72 AD - After walking all the way to India, Thomas is stabbed to death.

79 AD - Jude Thaddeus and Simon are murdered in modern day Iran.

90 AD - Philip is also crucified upside-down, but this time in modern day Turkey.

90 AD - Matthew dies, but we have conflicting reports.  Either he was stabbed in the back in Ethiopia or he was crucified and burned alive in modern day Iran or he died of natural causes.  There is no definitive history.

98 AD - John dies a natural death in Ephesus after being exiled to the island of Patmos for the Gospel.

When the Holy Spirit fell upon them, for most it was a death sentence.  The cost of giving us the Good News would be there lives.

And they did so willingly and without regret.

What has the Gospel ever cost me?

What has the Gospel ever cost you?

At the very least today, we can remember them and the price that was paid so we could have the joy of knowing Jesus.

Friday, May 22, 2015

Film Flash: Pitch Perfect 2

15 words or less film review (full review to follow soon)

An inferior, but diverting sequel.  If you loved the 1st, you'll smile through the 2nd.

3 out of 5 stars

Monday, May 18, 2015

And I'm Done With Game of Thrones

I've never recommended Game of Thrones as a TV show.

It is vulgar and violent and downright pornographic.

But I have been following the series since season one.  As bad as it was in terms of graphicness, it had sharp writing and amazing acting.  I took great pains to try to enjoy the good in it while avoiding the explicit scenes presented.

The thing I found most fascinating was how some characters tried to be good in this horrid world.


There are no saints in Westeros.  That point has been hammered home.  The closest thing we have to a real and true hero is Jon Snow, and he recently beheaded a man who was begging for mercy.

Tyrion Lannister fascinated me because was raised with no virtue anywhere in his upbringing and yet he still tries to be good.  He fails often, but still tries.

But the character I felt the most protective of was Sansa.  Since season one she has been through the most emotional torture and stress.  She has had to play a game of manners just to stay alive.  She even had to marry Tyrion.  But in one of the series' most touching scenes, as she begins to disrobe on their wedding night, Tyrion stops her and tells her that he will not come to her bed until she asks.  And so she remained pure.

Through a series of circumstances, Sansa ended up at her home, Winterfell, and married the sadistic son of the man who helped murder her mother and brother.  In the final scene of the episode, she is (for all intents and purposes) raped by her new husband in front of his slave.

I cannot tell you how much this sickened me.

Game of Thrones has always been a fairly rapey show.  But this was just too much.

In a show that has been awash in disgusting things, why is this my breaking point?

The show was always horribly violent.

I can take violence.

 I just cannot stand suffering, particularly the emotional suffering that Sansa is enduring.

I have been watching in hope that good will triumph over evil and that there is a greater plan at work in the horrors that have occurred.  Perhaps there still is, but I no longer care.

A long series very often only works because you care about the characters; you have an emotional connection to them.  Jon feels like the leader you could follow.  Tyrion feels like the witty friend you wished you had.   Sansa feels like the sister/daughter that you want to protect.  To see this happen to her offend those affections horribly.  And I accept that sometimes characters die, especially on a show like this.  But to have Sansa endure all that she has thus far only to end up here feels like a long day's journey into night.

Even shows like The Walking Dead wallow in darkness.  But unlike Game of Thrones, that show does so in order to highlight the struggle to retain basic human goodness.  Game of Thrones revels in its depravity.  I was hoping for a redemption from that darkness.  That is, after all, the main idea of our Christian faith: as horrible and debauched as the world is, "God so loved the world that He gave His only Son."

But the world of the show is a Christ-less world.

For now I think I shall leave Westeros in the shadow of their Son-less night.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Sunday Best: Top 10 Dystopian Movies

In honor of Mad Max: Fury Road, this Sunday Best list is dedicated to dystopias.

Originally I had designed the list to be not "Movies about Dystopias" but "Best Dystopias."  But I soon found a problem categorizing which future horror was better than another.  So instead of judging each different horrible future per se, I decided to simply judge the movie in which it takes place.

A few rules:
-the future presented had to be clearly dystopian.  Some movies like Back to the Future 2 or the first 3 X-Men films are a mixed bag.
-the movie had to take place primarily in the dystopia.  So Terminator 1 and 2, as well as the last X-Men movie are out.
-the judgment is on quality of the film and not the enjoyment.  Some dystopian works like the latest Mad Max are actually a good deal of fun.  Some are gut-wrenchingly awful.  But either way, the judgement will not fall on how the terrible future made me feel but on the excellence of the art.
-I would only choose one movie that was set in a dystopian universe.  For example, since all of the Resident Evil movies take place in the same dystopia, then I could only choose the best of that group if it made the list.  All other entries from that series would be disqualified.

So with that, here is the list:

10.  Robocop.

In this world you have a choice between savage street thugs and heartless corporations.  Everyday men like Murphy have their humanity stripped from them to fight crime in high-octane action.

9.  The Book of Eli.

Denzel turns in a fantastic performance as killer who is un-ironically serving God in a place where God has largely been ignored.

8.  Dredd

This film is tense and claustrophobic as Dredd and his partner have to climb a high-rise cramped with a city-level population to get to the bad guy.  Awesome action throughout.

7.  The Running Man

I admit this movie is very unserious compared to the book.  And this is not one of Arnold's best.  But there is something incredibly entertaining about watching this movie about how it doesn't seem to get its own irony about how the media desensitizes us to violence.

6.  Mad Max: Fury Road

(see my full review coming soon)

5.  WALL-E

The first 20 minutes of this film are some truly wonderful visual treats.  It is essential a silent film for a good portion.  The rest of the film doesn't live up to the beginning, but it is still very good.

4.  Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.

I was not prepared for how good this movie was.  The performances were outstanding and the script was smart and sharp.  It is the best movie about apes taking over the planet.

3.  The Hunger Games

The thing that holds this series together is the performance of Jennifer Lawrence.  Her restraint and her abandon together make this horrible future seem real and makes us invest in the struggle against the Capitol.

2.  The Road

This is towards the top of my list of great movies I will never see again.  I was emotionally scarred after watching this movie for days and days after.  It is brutal, bleak, and beautifully done.

1.  The Matrix

The sequels have major problems, but once you get past the hype, the original Matrix is an incredible film on a lot of levels.  Not only is it visually stunning but it is the most creative thing the Wachowskis have ever done.  Seeing it again with fresh eyes, it still holds up well.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Trailer Time: The Muppets TV Show (2015)

I think this trailer looks, witty, funny, and mature.

I also think that this show is a MONUMENTAL mistake.

This show, I predict, will be the end of The Muppets.

Oh, I'm sure they will be around here and there.  But as a culturally important franchise, this will kill them.

The original Muppet movie is about wonder and childlike belief, sprinkled with guest stars.

This new show is a cynical twist on something wholesome: like fresh milk spiked with bad vodka.

Marijuana jokes?

Nudity jokes?

Sorry, but if I had children, I would keep them far away from this show.  Not only that, I would sadly probably keep them away from the earlier good Muppet outings for fear that they would watch this.

It is destroying the goodwill and legacy of this beloved franchise.  

In a desperate attempt to stay relevant, they are abandoning their timeless virtues and are nailing themselves to a fading moment in pop culture.

This is where the Rainbow Connection ends.


Film Flash: Mad Max - Fury Road

15 words or less film review (full review to follow soon)

I was exhilarated despite myself.  The whole movie is one big, insane action scene.

4 out of 5 stars