Thursday, September 19, 2013

Mad Max

Directed by George Miller. Written by James McCausland, George Miller and Byron Kennedy. Starring Mel Gibson (Max), Joanne Samuel (Jessie), Hugh Keays-Byrne (Toecutter).

Bottom line: Good chase scenes and fun characters make this perfect for a Saturday afternoon.

I’ve seen Mad Max twice. The first time was a few years ago. I saw it because it was one of those famous movies that I've never taken the time to watch. I must have been doing two things at once because I didn't quite get it. This time, I gave it my full attention and I think I understand it. At least, I understand it a little more. It still feels like a rather strange movie but I have a better idea of what happened.

The movie opens to a post-Apocalyptic landscape, "a few years from now..." as the movie says. An understaffed police force is at war with criminals for control of the roads connecting the last pockets of civilization. A police cruiser parks alongside one such road. Suddenly, a female dispatcher's voice calls out an alert on the radio. A cop killer and his girlfriend have escaped custody, stolen a supercharged police cruiser and are on the run. The unit in pursuit needs assistance. The criminal’s voice blares out on the radio, "I am the nightrider!" The two officers race off to join the pursuit. The nightrider continues to taunt and evade both cars. Goose, a motorcycle officer, briefly joins the pursuit before crashing. Throughout the chase, the camera cuts to an officer who sits alone in a cruiser. The mysterious man, steps out of his car, puts on dark sunglasses and dons a leather jacket and leather gloves with quiet, deliberate motions. This is Max (Gibson), the force's top officer. Once the criminal shakes off his pursuers, Max sets off to bring the man to justice. The two cars speed towards each other in a game of chicken. The cars nearly avoid a head on collision. The almost fatal encounter silences the once proud nightrider. Instead of shouting at the officer, he begins to cry. The two cars race over a hill at such speed the nightrider can’t react fast enough to avoid an overturned fuel tanker blocking in the road. The nightrider's car bursts into a ball of fire and the sequence ends.

The introduction of Mad Max is simple and to the point. It’s a good indication of what the rest of the movie will be like. The focus of the movie is on cars and chase scenes. The story is present to make excuses for more chase scenes. That is, it isn't a sparse story with chase scenes but chase scenes with story spread throughout. It isn't quite to the level of focus as the original Gone in 60 Seconds (which features a 40 minute chase scene) but it is still enjoyable. On some level, for a short hour and a half movie, I might say that the film tries to accomplish too much. After all, it takes some time to establish Max's wife and infant son, and his friend named Goose, and the nightrider’s gang, and the police force, and so on but the pace of the movie is consistent enough that this doesn't become much of an issue.

The vehicles and characters are equally stylized. For example, you have the one nameless couple driving in a 1959 Chevolet Bel Air with fur interior and an elaborate flame paint job. Similarly, you have the police captain, Fifi; a tall man with a billowy voice and a thick moustache wears leather pants and no shirt while he waters his little plants. The style reminds me of the colorful gangs in The Warriors where you have the baseball gang and the roller skating gang. There isn't really a reason for cars and characters. I mean, this is the post-apocalyptic future, right? How much time, money, and energy did they spend on making these cars? Shouldn't these people be worried about food? Mad Max is just one of those movies where you have to go with the flow.
I'd recommend this movie for a Friday evening or Saturday afternoon. It is simple and to the point. I hesitate to get excited for the upcoming remake, Mad Max: Fury Road, starring Tom Hardy, I because I wouldn't be surprised if they try to make it gritty and edgy like Dread. Then again, it's going to be directed by George Miller.

As I drafted this post, I thought about the other two movies in the franchise, Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior and Mad Max: Beyond the Thunderdome. I don’t remember really ever watching either but I have bits and pieces in memory. I watched them both shortly thereafter just to get my story straight. In short, I liked Mad Max. It was simple and action-y and that’s that. With Mad Max 2, time has passed and civilization as we know has crumbled. Small gangs (good and bad) living together to survive. Cars and motorcycles are still the main mode of transport so fuel a source of hostilities. Mad Max 2 is the one with the “feral kid” armed with a metal boomerang (that’s how I kept it straight). Max has become the brooding loner who just wants fuel to drive away from his sorrows. He comes across a lowly, honest tribe (appropriately dressed in white) who needs his help. I wasn’t the biggest fan of the sequel because it just felt like all sorts of other movies but with a different art style. If you’ve read my other reviews, you know I dislike kids in movies. Fortunately, Mad Max 2’s feral kid isn’t obnoxious. It’s refreshing. I was thinking, yeah, this kid is going to get into some trouble and Max is going to have to save him. As it turns out, the kid saves Max more often than not. Because he is feral, he doesn’t speak but growls. He’s kinda like a puppy but, because he’s a kid, we don’t have to worry about him dying. This isn’t the type of movie that would kill a kid.

Now, Mad Max: Beyond the Thunderdome is the one with Tina Turner. We are farther in the future. Fuel has all but disappeared. Max, for example, enters the movies in a truck pulled by six camels. He comes to a town called BarterTown. Yada yada yada, he saves the day again. I really disliked the last installment of Mad Max. It is the a perfect example of why I dislike children in film. It’s as if they said “We can’t just do a single feral child again: we have to up the ante.” They throw in a whole tribe of children. They aren’t funny or cute or inspiring. They cause so much more problems than they help: ‘We’re trying to be quiet and sneaky? WHY DO WE HAVE TO DO THAT, MAX?!’ They actually made me angry. I don’t know how Max could’ve kept his cool. Sheesh, just thinking about them makes me annoyed.

If you have some extra time and want something light, check out Mad Max. If you really liked it, then it wouldn’t be the worst decision to check out Mad Max 2 but that’s only if you really liked it. If you want a post-apocalyptic, dystopian future, watch something more fun like Escape from New York not Mad Max: Beyond the Thunderdome. Nobody should see Mad Max: Beyond the Thunderdome.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Once Upon A Time in the West

Directed by Sergio Leone. Written by Sergio Leone, Sergiio Donati, Dario Argento, Bernardo Bertolucci, Mickey Knox. Starring Henry Fonda (Frank), Charles Bronson (Harmonica), Claudia Cardinale (Jill McBain), Jason Robards (Cheyenne).

Bottom line: I've always thought I hated westerns and its because of movies like
Once Upon A Time in the West.

Once Upon A Time in the West opens to a quiet dusty train station. An old, wiry, prospector type man (really, he is a caricature) is held up by three intimidating, quiet men. The three men are waiting for the next train to arrive. After several minutes of standing and waiting and sitting and waiting, the train arrives. Charles Bronson (we come to know him as Harmonica) stands alone with a bag in one hand. He drops it, pulls out a gun and kills the three men. Now before I get much further, let me start with my first gripe about this movie: the art direction.

It's like Leone said," Alright, we are going to make this a Western Epic!" The movie is overflowing with landscape shots of "The West": covered wagons going into the distance flanked by mesas, stagecoaches, bustling "wild west towns". It is like the art director pulled out the Wild West Catalog and said," I want two of everything! We need children’s toys? Wooden railroad stations and widdled horses. Oh, and don't forget dusters which can be the gang uniform." It's like walking into a Cracker Barrel. There is something to be said about creating a fully fleshed out world but let's not get carried away.

The thing that troubles me the most about this movie is the treatment of women. It has a general, gross, misogynistic vibe that makes me uncomfortable. Then again when is misogyny not gross? I mean just about every line directed towards or about women has a rape-y vibe. This isn't something shockingly new; I was playing the video game Red Dead Redemption and just about every single line, I kid you not, is suggestive of rape. Let me give you some examples from Once Upon A Time in the West:

Jill McBain comes from New Orleans to live with her new husband and his three children. Before she arrives at the homestead the outlaw, Cheyenne, supposedly murders the family. Cheyenne comes to the widow to explain that he isn’t guilty. At one point she says, "Why don't you throw me over the table and have your way with me and, better yet, why don't you call your men in too! All I'll need to do it jump in a pot of boiling water and I'll be exactly the same as I was..." Now, when she said that she would need to jump in a pot of boiling water, I thought she was saying that she could just quickly commit suicide, but no! She was just saying that she would use the water to clean herself. Germs are really the only damage of rape, right? Mental and emotional damage? Meh, that doesn't happen so we can just ignore that.

Shortly after meeting Cheyenne, Jill packs her bags and plans on leaving the farm for New Orleans. She is stopped by who I assume is our hero, Harmonica (Bronson). He says,"It isn't time for you to leave yet." She says," Who are you?" He gives her a once over and spins her around tearing off her lace collar. We are a half hour into the movie so I guess it is time for her to start disrobing. He pushes her, holds her down and tears the sleeves off her dress. He then stops and says, "Go get me some water from the well." I don't get it. Usually, if a film is trying to make a situation where a woman shows a ton of cleavage, it is usually a villain doing to tearing, not the hero. Even from a story perspective, this baffles me. I simply do not see why he would tear her dress like that before ordering her to get him water. But, wait there’s more.

At one point Frank, the man who murdered Jill’s husband, kidnaps her. The camera cuts to them lying in bed together. She helps him take off her pink corset while he says," You're the type of woman that needs to feel a man's hands...all over you...even if they are the hands that murdered your husband. Is there anything you won't do to save your own skin?" "No, Frank." She kisses him and turns onto her stomach, taking off her blouse in the process. The camera pans away and fades. So how are we supposed to feel about this? The dialog has a weird, problematic, rape-y, sadistic vibe to it.

We aren't supposed to sympathize with Frank but the camera is, for the most part, positioned from above the bed looking down on her. The dialog and camerawork force us to gaze at Jill. How I am supposed to sympathize with her if she is able to sleep with this guy without hesitation? But wait, there’s more!

Jill is living alone and the railroad is being built through her land. Before leaving, Cheyenne looks at the railroad workers and says," You should go give [the railroad workers] some water. They are tired hardworking men and there's nothing like seeing a beautiful young woman. And if one of them should pat you on the behind, act like nothing happened, they've earned it." He pats her on the butt, winks at her, says," Just act like nothing happened," and leaves. The movie closes with her giving the crowd of men water. Yeah, just go, little lady; let those men objective and grope you because they've earned it! That's how this 175 minute movie ends and it makes me sick. It's as if sexual harassment is endearing with a "Boys will be boys" type of attitude.

I think it goes without saying that I was really disappointed by Once Upon A Time in the West. During the opening credits when I saw "Directed Sergio Leone”, I thought,' that name sounds very familiar, I think he is famous for something.' I was embarrassed to see that I forgot he was the director of The Good, The Bad and The Ugly and Fistful of Dollars. Both movies are great and I thought about why they were great. The extended cut of The Good, The Bad and The Ugly is over three hours long but it doesn't it. The film has the patience to slow down. It is a wonderful way of building tension by contrasting the speed of a gunfight with the desolation of the empty, western landscape. In Once Upon A Time in the West, the extended silence feels like little more than an imitation. If you want to see a good Western, or even a reasonable Western go see one of Leone’s other films.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

RiffTrax Live: Starship Troopers

Recently, at Lincoln Nebraska’s Marcus Grand Theater, there was a reshowing of RiffTrax’s Live: Starship Troopers. I have seen the ludicrously cheesy 1997 sci-fi movie a couple of times, and as the Grand is a modern theater that shows current movies, it caught my interest. Reading the description, it mentioned something about Mystery Science Theater 3000 or MST3K.

If you aren’t familiar with MST3K, it was about a guy, Joel Hodgson, who is trapped aboard a spaceship with two robots. Forced to watch bad movies, the trio make snarky comments to mentally cope. As the movies play, you see the silhouettes of three viewers at the bottom of the screen, sitting in a row of movie seats. It’s just like if you are watching a cheesy movie with friends, but here the jokes are scripted.

Anyway, from what I read of the performance’s description, it was a rescreening of the live event that took place on August 15th of 2013. Initially, I was hesitant. I thought it was inspired by the show so they would have three people making jokes. To my great relief, it was actually the three guys from MST3K: Michael J. Nelson, Kevin Murphy and Bill Corbett. At the same time, I wasn’t sure how the program was going to be. I mean, I hadn’t heard of them doing anything the past decade, so it might’ve been just a depressing attempt to recreate something from the past. I am happy to say that I don’t think anything could be further from the truth.

Watching this was the best cinema experience I’ve had all year. The jokes were solid and consistent. When the film’s newsreel footage covers the screen with “WAR” with flames filling the letters, one of the men quickly says, “One of Fox News’ more subtle graphics”. Later, one of them says “Oh that Busey has nice teeth...for a Clydesdale”.

They don’t really ever get political or preachy. As I mentioned before, it is just like having a group of friends over to poke fun at a silly movie so there’s nothing too heavy.

The tone of the production was light hearted. Starship Troopers is an incredibly violent movie (people are torn to pieces, dismembered, melted, etc.) but they managed to make it a fun experience by smoothly censoring certain parts. During a shot of a killed dog or a person being torn in half, for example, the camera fades to a shot of the audience putting the movie in the background or making it not visible. During the infamous shower sequence, Bill Corbett announces he has a surprise for everyone: a gorilla gram. The camera cuts over to look at the dancing gorilla, avoiding any extended sequences of nudity. This is a gag they reuse later in the showing too. Granted, it is silly and isn’t particularly funny but everybody understands why they are doing it so it’s ok.

According to the Wikipedia article, they were originally going to do Twilight but couldn’t get the rights to use it so they switched to Starship Troopers. Twilight would’ve been amazing but I wasn’t disappointed in the least with what they did with Starship Troopers.

I was so happy with the experience that I checked out the RiffTrax. It turns out there are a ton of movies that feature the three hecklers. The site sells digital downloads (and discs) of the movies with the commentary. They also, if I understand correctly, sell just the audio commentary track that integrates with a regular DVD. I had always wished that MST3K could come back to do current movies and my wish has come true.

On a similar note, they are going to do another, one night, live performance of Night of the Living Dead on Thursday, October 24th, 2013. You can get tickets on the Fathom Events Website. I, for one, can’t wait to see it. Whether or not you are familiar with MST3K, I highly recommend you check out RiffTrax (and of course MST3K).