Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Kingsman: The Secret Service (Matthew Vaughn, 2014)


Matthew Vaughn’s Kingsman: The Secret Service adapts a comic book by Mark Millar, who also wrote the source material for Vaughn’s similarly wantonly violent Kick-Ass (2010). I remember liking Kick-Ass, but Kingsman, although admirable in some aspects, kind of just made me sick. An early scene depicts a James Bond-esque secret agent getting sliced in half lengthwise, and right off you know this is going to be that kind of movie—devoid of restraint, good taste, or a moral center, a movie that tries to sell you on the notion that graphic violence without context is something pure and fun.

Kingsman’s most remarkable sequence features Colin Firth, in a hypno-induced mad rage, single-handedly dispatching about fifty likewise crazed civilians in a little over three minutes. Although not actually filmed in one take, the sequence employs some slick editing, camerawork, and stunt-doubling to seamlessly stitch together footage to transform the former Mr. Darcy into an unstoppable badass killing machine. But, even though the brawl is exquisitely shot and choreographed, and it should be cool to see Colin Firth going on a rampage, I really couldn’t applaud a scene that seemed to revel in the massacre of a bunch of innocent non-combatants. The movie does tell us that these are bad people, but, even so, in this moment at least, they are in an altered state and not acting of their own will. The Firth character, once back in his right mind, remarks on how horrible all that killing was, but there is no sense of conviction that the filmmakers share this sentiment. They clearly mean for the audience to be exhilarated and to cheer Colin Firth on through the slaughter, and any lip service to the contrary is simply insulting.

Obviously, the movie is not to be taken seriously. But an irreverent tone doesn’t automatically entitle it to a laugh either. Another scene has hundreds of people’s heads exploding into fireworks, including that of the president of the United States, among other world leaders. Is this one of those “British humor” things that I’m just never going to get?

Certainly, I’ve enjoyed other, perhaps no less violent movies before, but something about the violence in Kingsman just rubs me the wrong way. Maybe it’s that the context is so threadbare, so the violence feels blatantly for its own sake. The characters are all woefully underdeveloped, giving viewers little reason to root for any of them, the charismatic Firth aside. The earlier part of the story focuses on a bunch of young Britons competing for an opening in the Kingsman agency. After the candidates’ tests concluded, I wondered if the movie could have done without that subplot altogether, because the trials were so predictable, and the protagonist’s would-be rivals and friends alike so nameless and faceless, that it just felt like a waste of my time. Except, in hindsight, that “subplot” may have been half or more of the movie’s running time, so I don’t suppose there would have been much left without it.

The bits that I sincerely enjoyed were the scenes where Colin Firth was schooling his apprentice on how to be a gentleman. I have no idea if any of the stuff he says about signet rings going on the left hand and whatnot is real, but he sells it all with such quintessentially English dignity that I was almost inspired to take notes, because, after all, who wouldn’t want to be as cool and classy as Colin Firth?

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Mad Max: Fury Road (George Miller, 2015)


There were things in Mad Max: Fury Road that I’d never seen or even imagined before. Things that made me seriously wonder about the people responsible for this film. And when I learned that Fury Road director and Mad Max co-creator George Miller also did Babe: Pig in the City and both(!) Happy Feet movies, I really started to wonder how this guy’s mind works. Never mind that it is the fourth installment in a series, equal parts sequel, reboot, and remake. Mad Max: Fury Road is, at once, a more-than-worthy successor to 1981’s The Road Warrior yet also a singularly visionary work, whose like we’d be lucky to encounter even once a generation. It is a film that makes me fall in love with film itself.

Fury Road follows in the footsteps of its predecessors, The Road Warrior especially, delivering a crazed and, some might argue, depravedly violent post-apocalyptic vision. In some ways, it plays out almost as a remake of The Road Warrior, which took the thrilling car chases of Mad Max (1979) and evolved them into full-blown running car combat with a climactic action sequence that was inventive and classic in its own time. Of course, I’m too young to have seen The Road Warrior in its own time, but that is its reputation. Regarding the movies now, as great a leap as The Road Warrior represented over Mad Max, Fury Road is yet greater. It’s an experience truly like nothing before in film, and as fresh as anything released in those intervening decades—almost a continuous, end-to-end chase movie that never lets up or lets down.

Once again, Max Rockatansky, our cynical point-of-view character wandering the desolate junkyard that is the future Australia, crosses paths with a band of vulnerable idealists hoping to better their lives in a world that has already ended. Once again, he finds himself dragged into helping their cause, escorting a massive vehicle transporting precious cargo, while being dogged all the way by an unrelenting gang of demented S&M freaks.

What follows from this bizarre premise is one jaw-dropping sequence after another, any one of them already a contender for “most ingenious set piece in film history,” yet Mad Max: Fury Road has no shortage. Max actually spends the entire first leg of the pursuit as an unwilling passenger—the living masthead bound to the front of one of the pursuer’s cars. Then there’s the canyon claimed by motocross maniacs performing jump tricks to firebomb our heroes’ armored truck from above. There are the hooligans who board the truck by pole-vaulting onto it—a callback to the first Mad Max, perhaps, only this time they’re doing it from one fast-moving vehicle to another. This all does not begin to describe the extent of the genius that this film contains.

The vehicular spectacle is rivaled only perhaps by the Wachowskis’ Speed Racer (2008). But, whereas Speed Racer’s action visuals were almost entirely animated, some incredible before-and-after shots at fxguide reveal that Fury Road’s unbelievable car sequences were achieved, to an impressive degree, through practical effects. I don’t suppose it should matter a great deal to the viewer how it was made, only how they experience the finished product, but, in any case, Mad Max: Fury Road is a monumental achievement. Indeed, it might be the modern cultural equivalent of the ancient civilizations’ pyramids and monolithic moai heads—testaments to the human capacity to commit labor both unreasonable and ungodly toward the creation of some insane thing to baffle far-off future societies.

Even if we can see documentation on how it was made, we may never be able to fathom the why of it all. The action set pieces are ridiculous, but so is everything else around the action. There is the wagon hauling the massive sound system into battle, and fronted by some autoerotic creep providing a live soundtrack, with his fire-breathing guitar, to accompany the War Boys’ convoy. Yes, “War Boys.” There’s something familiar about them, to be sure. They follow in the tradition of the bondage bikers from The Road Warrior, whose peculiar spiked leather aesthetic has been inexplicably adopted by so many other post-apocalyptic wasteland-themed products since. But, like everything else it evokes from The Road Warrior, Fury Road doesn’t merely repeat, but pushes further beyond what audiences might once have considered too far as it was, ratcheting up the madness to about the millionth degree. And so we end up with the War Boys—manic fanatics, who basically pray to steering wheels and gleefully spray-paint their teeth chrome as they ready themselves for suicide runs that they believe will carry them to Valhalla. The movie is full of these things that are, frankly, shocking, and yet never out of place, so fully committed is every element to the creator’s unique vision.

The only possible point of compromise, one might contend, is in the casting of Max. There’s nothing to concretely indicate whether Fury Road is a sequel, prequel, or reboot. Even the first three movies were only thinly connected, with Mad Max being the clear origin story. There’s nothing to Fury Road’s story that should have precluded Mel Gibson reprising his most iconic role. Well, it’s doubtful that he would have been up for the physical demands of this movie, but who knows. And maybe Miller was not interested in doing an “I’m too old for this” take on the character, a la the newer Indiana Jones and Die Hard movies. The truth is, whether or not Gibson is too old now to play Max, he is for sure too old to come back from the embarrassment that he has become. However many years he had left in him as a viable leading man, he pissed them away through too many bouts of bigoted lunacy. It’s unfortunate, but the world—both ours and that of Mad Max—has had to move on.

Tom Hardy, our new Max, gives a performance unlike Gibson, who played Max as physically vulnerable but with a subtle yet indomitable madness in his eyes (which, we know now, was just Gibson’s own madness sizzling beneath the surface). Hardy is much more a beast physically, engaging more often with his bare hands than from behind the wheel, while his insanity seems more repressed yet also much deeper. Compared to everyone else in Fury Road, he’s almost subdued, except when he’s being haunted by the ghost of some unidentified little girl, which is a constant presence—not so much a part of this movie’s plot as it is an immutable part of the character of Max himself. It is his cold detachment (by his own admission via moody monologue, he tries to keep the world’s problems at an arm’s length) that allows him to make the hard pronouncement, “She went under the wheels,” without another glance back. And it is his good samaritanism, whether driven by conscience or by guilt, that assures us he would not make such a call unless it were true.

It’s a truly sensational film in every way—not just an exhilarating delight for the eyes and ears, but one that strikes as intensely at one’s core. It cuts so deeply so swiftly, and so effortlessly that you almost don’t realize that it’s doing it. This is a film that cast a bunch of supermodels—women persistently treated as objects (as are all women, the difference being that these have arguably made their careers off it)—to have them confront those gazing by directly stating, “We are not things.” Or how about Rictus Erectus (played by former professional wrestler Nathan Jones) proclaiming, “I had a brother! A little baby brother! And he was perfect! Perfect in every way!” If ever there were a moment to chuckle through one’s tears….

I haven’t even touched on Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa, the co-protagonist of Mad Max: Fury Road. She’s awesome, obviously. Theron has always been a great actress—one of a small number who should always be either the lead or the heavy, never a supporting character, because that would just be a miserable waste and a misuse of her talents. I loved her on TV's Arrested Development, but it is only fairly recently that she has become my favorite with such films as Young Adult (2011), Snow White and the Huntsman (2012), and Prometheus (2012). Her best performances have always been in roles that played to her hardness, her unapproachability, her real-deal mean streak. In Fury Road, Furiosa is not mean, but she is fearsome. She is not bitter, but she is righteous. And she seeks not destruction, but the creation of a better life for her female charges and their unborn children. As with Max, the movie reveals little of her backstory (although we do learn that “Furiosa” is, improbably enough, her actual birth name), but one can imagine it is quite the tale. What happened to her arm? How did she rise to become Imperator? She’s certainly a compelling enough character that I would love to see another Furiosa film, perhaps a prequel to answer these questions.

Of course, I would welcome anything more by George Miller set in this universe. I have no idea where he could take Mad Max next, but that’s actually a nice feeling. Mad Max: Fury Road is the rare film that I wanted to watch again as soon as I walked out of the theater. Forget “thumbs up” and “thumbs down,” this is a film that, on a single viewing, merited immediate consideration on my top all-time list. Hell, even given two whole weeks of sober reflection, I’m still asking myself, “Is this the best movie I’ve ever seen?” Because I honestly can’t compose an argument against that conclusion. I cannot begin to conceive of what Miller might do next to follow up Mad Max: Fury Road (what could possibly top the best thing ever?), but I can’t wait to see it.