Thursday, May 28, 2015

Mad Max goes to Frogtown

With its minimal plot and intricately staged mayhem, George Miller’s “Mad Max: Fury Road” is an action movie made into a Las Vegas hotel’s resident show. Think of it as Cirque du Apocalypse.

Cars, motorcycles and tanker trucks — all outfitted for war — spin, jump and collide as they speed across a landscape rendered cinematic by nuclear holocaust. This goes on for roughly two hours.

Miller’s return to the world he last visited in 1985’s “Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome” is a feature-length car chase executed with uncommon visual flair. At age 70, Miller retains his sense of style.

Also, an estimated budget of $150 million will buy you a lot of crashes and explosions.

The lavish praise most critics have heaped upon “Fury Road” is understandable, as is the moviegoing public’s relative indifference. Any action movie that isn’t in the style of Michael Bay’s poorly shot, badly edited and generally incoherent mode of filmmaking is a welcome respite. Critics have rewarded Miller accordingly, with a 98 percent fresh score on the Rotten Tomatoes meter.

Most moviegoers, however, seem content with the usual Bayhem, and they aren’t much interested in a film franchise that went dormant before most of them were born.

That doesn’t bode well for those of us who’d rather Hollywood bankroll a better class of action movie, which is what “Mad Max: Fury Road” is — a better class of action movie.

It isn’t just that Miller is a better action director than virtually anyone else handed a $150 million budget nowadays. It’s that his deceptively simple story leaves us with a lot of ideas to unpack.

Max, played by Tom Hardy, is a supporting character in his own film. With his story already told in the three previous installments starring Mel Gibson, Max is now our entry point for other characters’ stories. In “Fury Road,” those other characters are Charlize Theron’s Imperator Furiosa and the women she is helping to escape lives as sex slaves and broodmares to monstrous cult leader Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne).

“Fury Road” will seem familiar to aficionados of post-apocalyptic cinema. The film’s plot is a reworking of 1987’s “Hell Comes to Frogtown,” starring pro wrestler Rowdy Roddy Piper (“They Live”). Both movies feature a reluctant hero forced by circumstance to help women escape from a hideous mutant’s harem, and both wear their sexual politics on their sleeves.

While “Hell Comes to Frogtown” plays the war between the sexes for laughs, “Fury Road” plays it straight, which can be jarring for a movie in which so much else is deliberately absurd.

Immortan Joe and his followers are cartoon characters. Wearing a face mask that renders his speech a bellowing mumble, Immortan Joe might well be a parody of Hardy’s Bane in “The Dark Knight Rises.” Joe and his “war pups” ride into battle spurred on by thundering drums and a screaming electric guitar — a leather-and-chains update of the fife and snare that led 18th century armies into battle. It’s a send-up of hyper-masculinity, contrasted with the earnest feminism of Furiosa and the other escapees.

“Fury Road’s” feminism is unavoidable. It’s in the title and in Furiosa’s name, which both recall the Furies of Greek myth — female spirits of vengeance.

Yet the feminism of “Fury Road” isn’t the feminism currently in fashion in academia or at websites such as Jezebel. “Fury Road” takes as given innate differences between men and woman that can’t be explained by alleged patriarchal social conditioning. In “Fury Road,” men are naturally more aggressive and women naturally more nurturing. Furiosa has shaved her head and become more physically masculine to survive, but she seeks to escape to the matriarchal paradise of her childhood, where women safeguard seeds and hope to restore life to the barren wasteland.

The movie’s climax then adds another wrinkle. Matriarchy ends up being just as much an illusion as patriarchy. In the end, men and women work together, and women redeem the civilization men have already started to rebuild from the rubble of the one they destroyed.

Action movies this simple yet this layered are rare. “Fury Road” is a film to be emulated, not a road less traveled.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Miyazaki rises for his final bow

An apocryphal story about Wernher von Braun claims that when the first of his V-2s struck London, the pioneering German rocket scientist said to his colleagues, “The rocket worked perfectly, except for landing on the wrong planet.”

Whether true or not, two things are not in doubt. The first is the strength of von Braun’s obsession with building rockets that one day could reach the stars. The second is the price others — mostly civilians — paid for his wartime work. Americans may be forgiving, given that von Braun helped us win the space race. But Londoners who survived the Nazis’ hundreds of V-2s are probably less inclined to forgive and forget.

Von Braun comes to mind when watching “The Wind Rises” the final film — assuming his latest pledge of retirement sticks — of 74-year-old Oscar-winning animator Hayao Miyazaki (“Spirited Away”). 

“The Wind Rises” (Blu-ray and DVD) is a fictionalized biography of aircraft designer Jiro Horikoshi (1903-1982), who dreamed of making beautiful aircraft and who, like von Braun, saw his dreams perverted by war. The film follows Horikoshi from his youth, surviving the great earthquake of 1923, through marriage and on through World War II.

Horikoshi’s planes were marvels of design. When introduced, his Mitsubishi A6M Zero was unmatched in the skies above the Pacific. It was just made for the wrong purpose.

The dreamer whose dreams become the stuff of others’ nightmares is just the sort of dramatic tension that moves Miyazaki to do his best work. In his earlier movies, Miyazaki often focused on the tension between civilization and the natural world, between urban and rural. Such themes run beneath the surface of Miyazaki’s most beloved film, “My Neighbor Totoro,” and swell to the fore in his more mature work, such as “Princess Mononoke.”

In “Princess Mononoke,” Miyazaki’s heart clearly is with nature and the magical creatures lurking in its shadows. Yet he is aware enough and honest enough to show the smoke-belching factories of the city helping the poor and the outcast better their lives. Life is trade-offs.

In his more recent works, Miyazaki has turned from questions of ecology to matters of war and peace. A product of Japan’s postwar pacifism, Miyazaki now finds himself in a Japan more willing to use its military than at any time since World War II, and not just for self defense but for multinational operations abroad.

For Miyazaki, who was born in 1941, this must seem the slippery slope leading back to the Imperial Japan that ended in cities filled with death and ruin. One wonders if that’s why he finds it so difficult to stay retired. It’s not just his art calling to him, but fear of what Japan could again become. Miyazaki has spoken out against attempts to remove the anti-war Article 9 of Japan’s constitution.

In Miyazaki’s “Howl’s Moving Castle,” based on a novel by Diana Wynne Jones, the hero, Howl, is a magician who is, to put it bluntly, a draft dodger, going from place to place in his moving castle to avoid being caught up in other people’s wars.

In “The Wind Rises’ ” Horikoshi, Miyazaki finds a kindred spirit — an artist and a dreamer. Some of the most beautiful scenes in “The Wind Rises” — a film full of gorgeous images —  take place in Horikoshi’s dreams, where he meets his idol, Italian airplane designer Giovanni Caproni, who also saw the planes he designed sent off to war, most never to return.

Disney’s English-language dubbing, as usual, takes advantage of name actors, some of whom seem stiff behind the microphone. But there are a few pleasant surprises, Stanley Tucci’s Caproni among them. But it’s German director Werner Herzog as a German pacifist who steals the show.

Like all of Miyazaki’s works, “The Wind Rises” is a visual symphony, where the silence between the notes is as important as the notes themselves. While not his greatest film, it is a great film and a fitting capstone to a career touched by genius.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

‘Ultron’ criticism highlights feminism’s fissure

Scarlett Johansson as the Black Widow in "Avengers: Age of Ultron."
When Joss Whedon is getting slammed as an enemy of women, there's something wrong with the world. Where once there was the planet Earth, there is now Bizarro World.

This is the Joss Whedon we're talking about — the guy who created “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” the guy who is famous for writing Strong Female Characters (trademark pending). But given some of the criticism of “Avengers: Age of Ultron,” you'd think he wanted to repeal the 19th Amendment.

From The Daily Beast, filed under “Sexism,” we get the headline “ ‘Avengers: Age of Ultron’s’ Black Widow Disgrace.” From there’s “Black Widow: This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things.” At Indiewire we find “An Open Letter to Joss Whedon from a Disappointed Feminist Fan After Watching ‘Age of Ultron.’ ”

And the source of this outrage and disappointment? Whedon committed what is, according to some but not all strains of feminism, the ultimate sin. He wrote a female character, in this case the Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), who wants to have children but can’t. Worse, her infertility actually upsets her, and she seeks a surrogate form of maternal fulfillment in playing aunt to Hawkeye’s kids.

Because of this, The Daily Beast’s Marlow Stern reduces Black Widow’s contribution in “Age of Ultron” to doing nothing but “flirt and whine about being barren.”

This line of criticism has two problems. The first is it overstates the importance the Black Widow places on infertility as part of her identity. When the Widow thinks of herself as a “monster,” it’s about everything she gave up by becoming a Russian spy. She sacrificed family, yes, but also part of her humanity. Whedon practically spells it out with a flashback to the Black Widow killing her first victim.

The second, more significant problem is it belittles the fact that some — indeed most — women do find quite a bit of fulfillment in having children.

This is where the war brewing within modern feminism comes into play.

There’s liberal feminism, which is about empowering women, women having the same opportunities as men, and expanding the range of choice available to women. Then there’s the feminism that leads people to send hate tweets Whedon’s way, at least until he left Twitter.

The latter is the feminism of “social justice,” summed up by video game critic Anita Sarkeesian (a friend of Whedon’s, ironically enough) when she tweeted recently, “Feminism is about the collective liberation of women as a social class. Feminism is not about personal choice.”

A feminism that isn’t about personal choice is a perverse thing indeed. It’s no surprise that it didn’t start with women. The anti-choice, social justice feminism of Whedon’s critics originated with a dead white male. And not just any dead white male, but the wrongest of dead white males, Karl Marx — as passed down by another dead white male, Marxist cultural theorist Theodor Adorno.

All social justice feminism does is replace class with gender. So, just as orthodox Marxism has its “class traitors,” anti-choice feminism has its gender traitors. All a woman need do is make the wrong choice, one that doesn’t further the cause of feminism as anti-choice feminists define it.

By liberal feminism’s standards, the Black Widow as portrayed in “Age of Ultron” is a feminist hero. She kicks butt, embraces her sexuality and can hang with some of the most powerful men (and gods) on the planet. Yet by anti-choice standards she’s a gender traitor, and Whedon is a traitor for writing her that way, as well as for giving Tony Stark a “rape joke” when Stark cracks wise about re-instituting primae noctis if he lifts Thor’s hammer.

This is not just bad feminism. This is a terrible way to go about critiquing popular culture. It’s an immature criticism that acts as if artists agree with everything their characters say, and as if fictional heroes can’t sometimes behave improperly, say by telling off-color jokes.

If writers and filmmakers actually paid attention to their social justice critics, we’d end up with art and entertainment about as inspiring as the old boy-meets-tractor morality plays of Soviet realism.

Thursday, May 07, 2015

Artificial intelligence: threat or menace?

The great thing about the British tabloids is they never let a strict adherence to the truth get in the way of a headline. Take this one from The Daily Mail: "Stephen Hawking and Elon Musk sign open letter warning of a robot uprising." Pretty ominous, huh?

Artificial intelligence has loomed as a threat to humanity ever since Victor Frankenstein reanimated his first corpse. A.I. dooms us all, whether on Earth ("Terminator" and its sequels) or out in space ("Battlestar Galactica"). If we're lucky, we'll just end up ruled by a despotic supercomputer, as in Joseph Sargent's 1970 thriller "Colossus: The Forbin Project." If we're not lucky — boom.

Two movies now in theaters take different approaches to the A.I. menace. In "Avengers: Age of Ultron," A.I. is the latest threat confronting Marvel's cinematic superheroes. "Ex Machina," meanwhile, confronts us with just how thin the line between intelligence and artificial intelligence really is.

The curious thing about Marvel's movies is they're action movies where the action is typically the least interesting part. The Shaw Brothers, Marvel is not. And "Avengers: Age of Ultron" has a lot of action. It starts with a raid on a Hydra base — Hydra being the bad guys from the Captain America movies and TV's "Agents of SHIELD" — and ends, like the first "Avengers" movie, with a huge battle involving our heroes vs. an army of disposable drones. And no, that's not a metaphor for the United States' preferred form of modern warfare. In his second outing for Marvel, Joss Whedon still directs action scenes as if they bore him, and they probably do. They're just this thing he has to do because they're expected, and his disinterest is contagious.

The one action set piece that isn't a snooze is the much-promoted heavyweight bout between the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo's CGI stand-in) and Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) wearing his just-for-the-occasion "Hulkbuster" Iron Man suit. One-on-one combat, punctuated by clever quips, beats Michael Bay-style melees every time.

The big bad is an insane robot named Ultron, voiced with malevolent glee by James Spader. Spader needs only his voice to rank with Tom Hiddleston's Loki among Marvel's best villains.

One of Stark's science projects gone awry, Ultron is supposed to protect humanity. Then Ultron decides the best way to do that is by making humanity evolve, and nothing speeds along evolution better than a global extinction event. Oops.

It makes one long for the more modest aims of Gene Hackman's Lex Luthor, plotting to dump California's coastline into the Pacific to further a real estate scheme.

Whedon, who also wrote the script, is on more comfortable turf dealing with characters, and "Age of Ultron" gives him plenty. Joining the previous film's team are "Godzilla's" Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Elizabeth Olsen as Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch, while Paul Bettany, Stark's helpful A.I. Jarvis in four earlier movies, finally shows up in the flesh as the Vision.

The verbal sparring between Stark, Captain America (Chris Evans) and Thor (Chris Hemsworth), along with the budding romance between Ruffalo's Banner and Scarlett Johansson's Black Widow, keep lively what otherwise, like "Iron Man 2," feels more like a warm-up than the main act.

"Ex Machina" is definitely a main act, and it's a brilliant one. Screenwriter Alex Garland ("28 Days Later") steps behind the camera for an impressive directorial debut.

Billionaire tech mogul Nathan (Oscar Isaac) invites one of his programmers, Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), to his secluded home for an experiment. The experiment is to test whether Nathan's android Ava (Alicia Vikander) has achieved artificial intelligence. But when Ava tells Caleb that Nathan cannot be trusted, it kicks off a battle of wits that leaves us to ponder not only what it means to be human, but whether the real danger of artificial intelligence isn't a lack of humanity, but too much of it.

Garland has crafted a first-class sci-fi thriller, with so many twists and red herrings that the ones you see blind you to the ones you don't.

"Ex Machina" may be the smaller film about A.I., but it leaves the bigger impression.