July 21, 2015

Mad Max: Fury Road

     Mad Max: Fury Road blew my mind. This is the standard that all big-budget films should be striving for: a seemingly inexhaustible supply of creativity, bursting from every single frame from start to finish; a fully-realized world where every element of the film links to the environment that has been created; and characterizations that rely on our knowledge of tropes but know how to move beyond them.
     If you didn’t know that Mad Max: Fury Road is based on an Australian trilogy (starring Mel Gibson at his handsomest) that started in the late 70s, your jaw will drop when you learn that the director George Miller was subsequently responsible for films such as the Babe films (the talking pig movies), and Happy Feet (the dancing penguins series). But there is a common thread: his singular talent for creating original worlds, each with their own internal logic, and his masterful control over them. One of the reasons why I can no longer watch Peter Jackson’s films is because he expects people to be taken with entire scenes made out of CGI. (All I see is strings of dollar signs, like the strings of numbers in The Matrix.) In Mad Max, you don’t know what is live action and what is CGI, but you believe all of it. Not to mention that literally every single action sequence is inventive, down to the set pieces, and all of it is integral to driving the plot forward.
     Those who watched the trailer may be put off by the level of testosterone and cruelty. But I assure you, this is one of the tiny handful of Hollywood action films where the female characters are not a backhanded compliment. I’m talking about the frankly disgusting number of films where they are pointlessly perfect (and can even kick the villain in the balls!) -- or are responsible for initiating the action in the story but are wholly sidelined as the men take over. The majority of female characters in the film may be breeders for an evil ruler’s harem, but when the action starts, they all contribute to the story, and perhaps crucially, their contributions are wholly plausible.
     A film like this is proof that mass entertainment doesn’t have to be limited to stories that write themselves, and have just enough bursts of inventiveness to give a cute little spin on well-worn genres. (I doubt the people who were raving about Bryan Singer twenty years ago could have imagined that his subsequent best would be the amazing-for-a-bar-set-low X-Men: Days of Future Past. Also, literally every single trailer for a superhero film I have seen in the past five years looks like a Hot Shots!-level parody.)
     I haven’t even bothered to write about the plot or the actors, but if the trailer provides even a glimmer of interest, go see it in the theater, no questions asked. I would watch the original trilogy, but I’m afraid after watching this film that the chase scenes will be like watching a golf cart drive over a sand dune.

June 21, 2015


   Thinking about Selma today, and all the choices director Ava DuVernay emphatically avoids making in her Martin Luther King biopic. The intelligence and nuance she brings to her film are undeniable.
   I find many biopics to be marred by a certain cheapness: the “greatest hits” style storytelling, where you cherry-pick the highest and lowest moments of the subject’s life, creating an easily digestible trajectory; living, breathing people reduced to mere heroes and villains, with little affordance of ambiguity; and supporting characters that inject occasional doses of humor into the film but often derail its tone.
    Nothing DuVernay does is ever on the nose. The film focuses only on one period of King’s life: the historic march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, which King and his fellow leaders organized in 1965 to bring attention to the overwhelming number of black people being denied the power to vote. Selma takes an established fact and implores us to see it as something beyond a success, taking us into the exact machinations of the political process, and the complicated tangles within the black community that led to it.
    My elementary school-level US education may not be much to go on, but I was only ever taught to see MLK as a saint. In Selma, while you never doubt the fundamental righteousness of his vision, King is never deified. You see his savviness about using the media, how he was prepared to sacrifice the lives of innocent people to achieve a larger goal, and how he depends on his wife for emotional support even while he is not entirely faithful to her.
    Equally important are the portrayals of President Lyndon B. Johnson and Alabama Governor George Wallace. Despite Johnson’s reluctance to push for federal legislation that would allow black people to register to vote, you see that it wasn’t motivated by ignorance but also a resignation about bureaucratic/political processes that dictated how much he could push through. Likewise, while Wallace may have allowed the police to brutalize 500 peaceful black protesters, when you see him refer to the town’s head sheriff as a “white trash cracker”, you realize he’s not a racist bigot -- he’s a bigot, period, and that’s what is clouding his vision.
     For lack of better phrasing, I also appreciated that Selma never forgets it is a work of cinema. The soundtrack choices are often pointed, such as the use of ethnographic recordings of workers in Selma singing. I especially loved the cinematography, which made frequent use of the actor’s profiles and often cloaked figures in shadow. (There is a stunning scene set behind bars where practically the only light you can see is the dim, fading light in MLK’s eyes.)
    What is so painful about watching Selma is that it’s impossible to not think of recent headlines running parallel to the film. A scene of the Alabama girls being bombed in their church immediately links to the Charleston church shooting, and scenes of peaceful protesters being brutalized by policemen only brings to mind the horrific videos of policemen brazenly flouting protocol and killing or manhandling black civilians. I heard so many sniffles throughout the theatre during the film, but I only hope that people’s emotions didn’t stay in the theatre, and that the film started an actual conversation.

March 7, 2015

Elem Klimov's Come and See

Watched Come and See (『炎628』), a 1985 Belarussian war film. No joke, it was as hard to watch as Resnais' Night and Fog (so much that I'd put off seeing it for about a decade.) The film opens with a young teenage boy from a small, war-impoverished village digging in sand for an abandoned rifle so he can join the army to fight against the Nazis. He (and the audience) has no way of preparing for all the horrors he will face, as he faces one atrocity after another without ever being able to make sense of it all.

If, like me, most of the war films you've seen are from Hollywood, everything about the film will stun your senses. None of the elements you cling to in an American war film are present here: the soundtrack is by Mozart but is jarringly overlaid with the persistent drone of a jet, or the buzzing of flies. The long takes don't show off the fluidity of the scenes or the action, but instead show how suddenly and uncomprehendingly cruelties are forced upon people. The protagonist goes on no honorable soldier's "journey"; he simply survives, moving from one demolished village to the next, abject horror etched permanently on his face. Characters are shot in close-up, but look straight into the camera, allowing not empathy but instead making you feel almost accused.

All of this makes the film almost impossible to watch. And yet, it made me think, what good is there in making a war film that is amenable to the audience? I'm sure Hollywood war films are considered educational, but what is the value of a war film that reduces ideologies to a good side and a bad side, creates action scenes that offer an adrenaline rush and makes us cheer on the annihilation of human beings? It's so easy to dismiss these films as entertainment, but it's interesting how certain morals are always upheld in American films while others get a slide.