Inherent Vice (2014)

Starring- Joaquin Phoenix, Josh Brolin, Owen Wilson, Katherine Waterston, Reese Witherspoon, Benicio del Toro, Jena Malone, Maya Rudolph, Martin Short, Joanna Newsom, Jordan Christian Hearn, Eric Roberts, Serena Scott Thomas, Michael Kenneth Williams, Hong Chau, Sasha Pieterse, Keith Jardine, Peter McRobbie, Martin Donovan

Director- Paul Thomas Anderson

R- drug use throughout, sexual content, graphic nudity, language and some violence

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OUZgOQ186-A

I think I always suspected that part of me wasn’t going to understand Inherent Vice — from its announcement as a strange, throwback genre film to its release as a loosely narrative, emotionally detached bit of anti-cinema. It’s an abnormally intelligent stoner movie, basically. I’m just glad that the parts that were to my liking were as strong as they were — if Inherent Vice sounds like it’s up your alley, it’s probably going to be one of your favorite films of 2014.

The year is 1970. Private investigator — and marijuana connoisseur — “Doc” Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) is the guy you go to when the police can’t be involved. One night, his ex-girlfriend, Shasta Fay Hepworth (Katherine Waterston), shows up on his doorstep with a plea. She’s currently having an affair with a wealthy real Los Angeles estate developer. His wife and the man she’s having an affair with (it’s one big, happy family, apparently) have approached her with a plan to take over his estate, one that involves framing him for insanity and having him locked away in a private mental institution for the rest of his life.

Doc agrees to look into it. Shortly thereafter, Shasta disappears. While investigating two other cases, one involving a guy dodging an old debt and another involving a search for a former heroin addict’s supposedly (but probably not) dead husband, Doc works his way deeper into the politics of Los Angeles and slowly puts together a complicated puzzle involving the Aryan Brotherhood, the counterculture movement, the jazz scene, the FBI, a mysterious ship called The Golden Fang, and his old nemesis — LAPD detective and cheerful civil rights violator “Bigfoot” Bjornsen (Josh Brolin).

It’s undeniably a dense film, and it can be a touch difficult to follow at times. Most movie mysteries proceed from a clear start to a clear endpoint and establish consistent causes and effects in between. Inherent Vice approaches this detective story in a way that’s probably closer to how it happens in real life — Doc gets information and clues sometimes all at once and sometimes sparsely, with no obvious connection at the outset and no clear storytelling rhyme or reason to when and where he picks them up. He simply stumbles across them, and late in the game, he finally gets that clue that ties everything together. Where most mysteries start small and get larger, Inherent Vice starts large and waits to give you the glue to stick it all together into something small and manageable. It’s probably more realistic but not necessarily as cinematic. I’m not really offering any of this as either criticism or praise, more so observation. It’s just something you need to know to figure out if it’s likely to be to your taste or not.

Me? If nothing else, I’m always going to go to bat for something this brazenly unusual. It’s film noir meets 70s kitsch meets stoner movie meets satire. And it’s shot in the close, immediate style of a modern indie film. I’m not sure there’s ever been anything quite like it — The Big Lebowski, maybe? It’s not really something you see to feel much of anything — it didn’t really do much for me on that level. You see it for its tone and its subversive intelligence.

There’s a strong comedic vein running through it, and that might be its strongest point — or at least, the point at which it most directly appeals to me. I like my comedy dry, and I like my comedy dark. Inherent Vice’s tone is defined almost exclusively in those terms. It’s dry like a desert wasteland — so laid back and subtle in its humor that a lot of people might miss it entirely. It develops its humor through characters and relationships and situations; it presents all of it matter-of-factly and only once, to my memory, breaks its straight face — and I think it’s needed, especially early on, when that moment occurs, to let everyone know that it doesn’t quite mean everything it’s doing.

For me, the crux of the comedy is in the relationship between Doc and Bigfoot. Together, they make for some of the best characters of the year. They’re foils for each other in a very obvious way — Doc being a stoned-out-of-his-gourd hippie private investigator and Bigfoot being the uber-masculine fist of the law — but it’s more than that. Their dynamic is difficult to describe, because unlike other such relationships, it can’t be called “love/hate.” You know that dumb Internet word “frenemy?” That’s what they are. They absolutely and without reservation despise one another but continue their visits and confrontations anyway, seemingly because they get some weird kick out of the mutual abuse — and because they share exactly one key trait in common, in that both of them are willing to paint outside the lines in their occasionally foolhardy pursuit of justice. Joaquin Phoenix is hilarious; Josh Brolin is hilarious; they make for the most hilariously hateful bromance in cinematic history.

The film itself is half incoherent, like any other stoner flick, and half weirdly intelligent. It both relishes the early 70s culture and critiques it pretty thoroughly — painting the counterculture movement itself as the secret product of corporate branding. It’s kind of like the way the punk movement began with an old guy who wanted to sell a new fashion line to the angry kids in the street and handpicked a band to be its cultural representatives. It appealed to real anger, but its emergence into popular culture was a calculated moneymaking enterprise.

Inherent Vice posits that not only is this also, to some extent, true of the emerging hippie culture, it’s true of society in general. It frames this as lightly absurdist satire — all of Doc’s “paranoid hippie bullshit,” as Bigfoot puts it, ultimately turns out to be true, and everything about life in general is part of this vast, far-reaching conspiracy. In that bit of nonsense, the film stumbles into a revelation that rings with a bit more truth — there might not be a conspiracy, but there is a system, part deliberate and part accidental, the natural end result of misunderstood human nature. Whether we like it or not, people and actions are connected, and sometimes farther than we think possible.

Anything I would say against Inherent Vice comes down to a matter of personal taste — I’ve never loved this sort of thing, anything that could be loosely described as an “anti-movie.” I understand the cultural purpose and the specific way they communicate; they just have no particular effect on me. It would be largely pointless to elaborate. Basically, if Inherent Vice sounds at all like something you’d enjoy, see it right this instant. If it doesn’t, as Doc might say, “Well, all right.”

-Matt T.

Mortdecai (2015)

Starring- Johnny Depp, Gwyneth Paltrow, Paul Bettany, Ewan McGregor, Olivia Munn, Jonny Pasvolsky

Director- David Koepp

R- some language and sexual material

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aW_sfxUnbZA

Critics of the world, I have a request to make — in the future, for my own sake, and for the sake of others like me (there has to be at least one person, right?), when you see a movie that’s terrible beyond all reason, could you please write reviews more along the lines of “eh, it’s not very good” and less along the lines of “my eyes, my eyes, they burn?” I understand that many of you are committed to honesty in conveying your perspective; consider this a necessary evil. Because when you write reviews like the former, I nod my head and think, “Okay, I’ll skip that one.” But when you write the latter, my eyes light up, and I think, “I absolutely have to see this for myself.”

And then I do. And it’s Mortdecai. And it’s almost never as fun as I think it’s going to be. And I hate myself.

When an art restorer is murdered and her current project — believed to hide the key to millions of dollars in a Swiss bank account — is stolen, presumably by terrorists, Scotland Yard reluctantly turns to the only man with the knowhow to track down the missing painting — black market art dealer and all-around scoundrel Charlie Mortdecai (Johnny Depp), who, deep in debt and on the verge of torpedoing his marriage, doesn’t have much choice other than to come over to the side of the law…for however long it suits him, anyway.

Mortdecai just might represent the low point of Johnny Depp’s career. At the very least, it represents the depressing logical endpoint of his recent career trajectory — a role that’s pure shtick with not the slightest hint of a character underneath all of it. The reason we let him switch from leading man to character actor in the first place is because he started out really good at it — they’re strange, quirky roles, but there’s real humanity underneath the surface of, say, Edward Scissorhands and Jack Sparrow. (I’ve heard people say the same things about his work in Ed Wood and Sweeney Todd, but I haven’t managed to see either of those just yet.) They’re weird, but they’re characters with a certain emotional reality that you’re able to get invested in to whatever extent you need to. Years later, it was characters like the Mad Hatter and Willy Wonka — and, increasingly, Jack Sparrow — who were layered in too much artifice but weren’t entirely lifeless just yet, though each one seemed more frustrating than the last. And now, we’ve reached Charlie Mortdecai — a broad joke who bumbles across the screen for an hour and a half and never registers as anything deeper than mediocre sketch comedy.

I recall laughing once through the duration of this film, and that may have been out of desperation. I can’t remember exactly what caused it, but I remember that immediately after that laugh escaped me, I thought, “Really? That’s what got you?” I can only imagine someone finding this movie funny if they really, really enjoy mustache-based humor because there’s, like, a lot of it. I think this movie is 95 percent jokes about Charlie Mortdecai’s mustache. The rest of the humor is completely bog-standard — lifeless banter, obvious slapstick, some character-based stuff that would be funny if the setups and payoffs weren’t so predictable. Surprise and novelty are significant components of effective comedy, and Mortdecai delivers neither. In any given scene, whatever you think the joke is going to be usually ends up being what it actually is. Or at least, it is when the movie has properly decided, before going into a scene, what its angle is. Mortdecai’s incompetence is something that comes and goes depending on whether the movie wants a laugh or a plot development at the moment. And most of the running gags don’t have actual jokes attached to them; they’re recurring bits of…broad irreverence, I guess. I don’t know what else you’d call it.

You go to a movie like this solely for the comedy, so I’m not sure it matters what else it accomplishes after having failed on that score. The story is mostly an excuse to move Mortdecai from one failed bit to the next. I suppose I’m glad that the film never really tries to wield any significant narrative heft; at least it doesn’t bore you with attempts at emotion that it never earned. There isn’t any particularly good acting on display — even stars like Gwyneth Paltrow, who haven’t historically been above this sort of material, feel underserved here. The only remotely positive thing I have to say about this movie is that David Koepp at least has some visual sensibility and a style largely unique to him. He, too, is better than this material, and I’m not sure how it ended up being this bad — I wouldn’t say he’s a great director, but he’s solid, and more importantly, he’s good at tone, pacing, and structure, at least two of which strike me as Mortdecai’s biggest problems. Maybe he just doesn’t have much of an ear for comedy? I don’t know.

If this review has made you even remotely curious, please…don’t. Just don’t. It’s not the fun variety of bad. It’s somewhat the confusing/fascinating variety of bad, but that’s only entertaining for so long. Mortdecai just doesn’t work. Don’t see it. It isn’t worth it. Meanwhile, I’ll keep hoping that Black Mass is as good as it looks, because Johnny Depp really needs it right now.

-Matt T.

Taken 3 (2015)

Starring- Liam Neeson, Forest Whitaker, Famke Janssen, Maggie Grace, Dougray Scott, Sam Spruell, Don Harvey, Dylan Bruno, Leland Orser, David Warshofsky, Jon Gries, Jonny Weston

Director- Olivier Megaton

PG-13- intense sequences of violence and action, and for brief strong language

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JuU0M2xBasc

Curse my compulsive need to finish the franchises I’ve started. It leaves me with no one to blame but myself.

The third — and, they say, final (it won’t be) — installment in the Psychopath Fun Hour series finds resident violent whack-job Bryan Mills (Liam Neeson) trying to do the ordinary dad shtick again in a series of sickeningly adorable scenes with ex-wife Lenore (Famke Janssen) and daughter Kim (Maggie Grace, still 30). It’s hard to know what to say about what happens next — any other movie would treat it like a surprise, but the trailers have been screaming it at everyone, so… It doesn’t really matter anyway, so here’s the cliff notes version: Mills gets framed for a crime he didn’t commit (apparently, no one could dig up one of the million or so he did), so he must outrun the police while protecting his family and trying to discern the identity of the true killer before it’s too late.

Also, no one actually gets taken. Just want to throw that out there.

I’m not interested in being particularly fair to any installment of the Taken series — it’s moved well past the benefit of the doubt for me at this point. Still, in the interest of capturing my opinion honestly, Taken 3 is, at the very least, an improvement over Taken 2. Yes, I know that’s a low bar. Taken 3 is a little more tightly wound and has at least some sense of structure. In Taken 2, everyone just kind of wandered around and got into fights, and the film sustained itself solely by keeping success out of reach until the arbitrarily selected climax. At least Taken 3 is building toward something and allowing one objective to lead into another until the whole thing comes to a mostly organic ending. Plus, there isn’t anything quite as resolutely stupid as the scene in Taken 2 where characters triangulate their position by throwing grenades into residential neighborhoods (although the car crash scene comes close).

However, it’s still awful. In case you haven’t noticed, time has not warmed me to this franchise in the least bit. In my view, only the first one even got close to being decent — and that’s before you factor in, well, everything else. Both sequels have given the impression no one making them really cared. They set their pieces in motion early and obviously, and this movie in particular relies heavily on pop songs in place of feeling. Both struggled to get any kind of story off the ground. Generally, a story involves events affecting characters or characters affecting events — some form of change, basically. But if there’s a Taken 4 (and again, despite all indications to the contrary, it’ll really surprise me if there isn’t), I hope it’s the government kidnapping the family in order to use their DNA to develop a cure for PTSD — after all these characters have been through, it’s amazing that they’re exactly the same people they were three movies ago, before being kidnapped, tortured, nearly killed, sold into sex slavery, losing close friends, seeing people murdered in front of them. I understand why this franchise is studiously avoiding those implications — it wants to be fun. But at this point, if that’s all it hopes for, it needs to adopt a different tone, something a little less serious and gritty. It hovers near enough to the real world to force me to view everything with more nuance than I might otherwise, and if these events are going to continue to have no emotional impact whatsoever on these characters, this franchise needs to turn the dial toward Indiana Jones or Mad Max. But then again, even those films would adopt some sort of emotional center; they’d even usually build it into character and thematic arcs. So, I don’t know. Maybe the best advice I could offer the Taken movies is to stop being terrible?

I might also advise trying to avoid making Bryan Mills the worst person in the history of time. It’s not inherently a problem that the film’s subject is a really bad guy — it’s that it spends so little time recognizing the fact. That Mills is not a heroic figure is one of those things that I consider almost beyond debate at this point — he’s violent, egotistical, self-obsessed, completely out of control, and any realistic film about him would know he’s inevitably headed for a moral travesty committed in the name of his own perceived needs. Actually, not even that — there are scenes in all three films where you could argue he’s already committed that travesty many times over. The movies simply haven’t realized it. In the first one, there’s the scene where he shoots an innocent woman (who was helping him) in the arm in order to interrogate her husband. In the second one, there’s the irresponsibility of the aforementioned grenade-throwing bit, and more significantly, the scene where he murders a police officer who’s about to make things inconvenient for him — the guy turned out to be evil, but Mills did not know that when he shot him.

If anything, Taken 3 treads lightly around him — for whatever reason, it probably represents his lowest direct body count of any of the films. And yet, it still manages to deepen the brutality of this character, perhaps more than either of its predecessors. For starters, it brings back some of the old staples — namely, the for-funsies torture sessions of the first film (he waterboards a guy before even asking him any questions, then waterboards him again for saying something offensive). It also has the usual problems of almost any film about a framed man trying to prove his innocence — mainly, it seems to believe that if you are innocent of the crime for which you were originally arrested, you are also innocent of any and all crimes you commit in your efforts to prove as much. Unsurprisingly, Mills beats the tar out of dozens of police officers and tortures/kills a lot of criminals vigilante-style and breaks into a lot of places and steals a lot of classified information and damages a lot of property and endangers a lot of innocent bystanders, all of which strike me as things the law frowns upon, regardless of whether or not you were innocent before doing all of that. It doesn’t help that the plot to frame Mills is really bad and only works because he immediately goes on the warpath.

The most egregious showcase of Mills’ total inability to care about anyone but himself and his family occurs during the bigger of the film’s two car chases. I don’t remember the previous movies well enough to say for sure, but I think Taken 3 marks the first time Mills has indirectly killed innocent bystanders. The movie is really confusing about this scene — based on everyone’s reactions afterward, it would seem that no one was killed. But the scene also includes a moment where Mills inadvertently flips over a tractor-trailer that subsequently rolls over multiple vehicles, which doesn’t seem terribly survivable. Oh, and in case anyone wants to pull the “blame the villains” excuse on this question, Mills is running from police in this sequence.

Obviously, the Taken series is always going to suffer from its poor storytelling and badly shot action sequences. But its biggest problem has remained consistent through all three installments: An action movie doesn’t work when I despise the “hero,” want him to fail, and hope the film ends with him going to prison for the rest of his life. If, indeed, this truly is the last installment in this franchise, I’m not going to shed a single tear.

-Matt T.

The Homesman (2014)

Starring- Tommy Lee Jones, Hilary Swank, Grace Gummer, Mirando Otto, Sonja Richter, Jo Harvey Allen, Barry Corbin, David Dencik, William Fichtner, Evan Jones, Caroline Lagerfelt, John Lithgow, Tim Blake Nelson, Jesse Plemons, James Spader, Hailee Steinfeld, Meryl Streep

Director- Tommy Lee Jones

R- violence, sexual content, some disturbing behavior and nudity

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u6uQkoXKGxM

Here’s a comparison that’s going to seem strange (especially since most people writing about The Homesman saw it nearly a full year before the other film was even released), but hear me out — I found it an interesting exercise to see The Homesman very nearly in sequence with Mad Max: Fury Road, because they’re surprisingly similar in some really important ways. Both films inhabit genres that are somewhat stereotypically “for men” — in the case of Mad Max: Fury Road, the exploitation action movie; in the case of The Homesman, the western. Both are named after and technically about men — Max Rockatansky in the former and George Briggs (Tommy Lee Jones) in this (though you could make a good argument that both leads share protagonist status). They’re written and directed by men. And yet, I think both serve as surprisingly multilayered deconstructions of the patriarchy and argue for the elevation of women in society.

It begins with a small town in the Nebraska territories, shaken when the harsh frontier life drives three of its women insane, seemingly all at once. When the local men shy from the task, Mary Bee Cuddy (Hilary Swank) steps up to lead the women on the long and arduous journey east, where they can hopefully be cared for. Along the way, she shanghais Briggs into helping her party when she saves him from a hanging.

It’s difficult to discuss where The Homesman goes from here and how it achieves any of its goals without hinting at the resolution. It’s one of the more unpredictable films I’ve seen recently, one that adheres to no noticeable formula and doesn’t pull back on any of its choices based on how it feels the audience will react. There were plot developments in this movie that shocked me more than anything in recent memory. And yet, the film is really smart about bringing them to fruition — its story is one that’s capable of catching you off guard, but it never does that arbitrarily. It doesn’t pull the rug out from under itself for a cheap “gotcha” moment. Rather, it hints at character and motivation and emotional state, enough that every decision the protagonists make is an understandable one based on who they are, but with sufficient subtlety to refrain from broadcasting the twists loud and clear in advance.

Really, if you want to see it, it’s best you go in blind. You really should have the opportunity to experience it fresh, the way I did.

Obviously, that makes it difficult to discuss the details of the plot, but I’ve said all I plan to on that account anyway. However, it also makes it difficult to examine thematically — and that’s the part of the film that’s most worth exploring. It’s the part that very nearly, though not quite, gets it to greatness.

I’ll give it my best shot regardless. There’s plenty going on in The Homesman — it strikes against idealized portraits of the Old West, it pokes holes in the idyllic farming town, it exposes the madness of frontier justice. But most of what it says, it says through Miss Cuddy, who’s one of the more interesting female characters to grace the silver screen in recent months. It could be said that she’s someone who’s made to survive on the frontier — but alas, the frontier was not made for her. She’s tough as nails, headstrong, intelligent, resourceful, and quick on her feet. She’s no action hero — not that we see, anyway — but she has the right countenance for her hostile environment. She sees a storm, she battens down the hatches, she waits it out, she moves on. Same old, same old.

However, she’s also surprisingly desperate for a husband, to the point that she’ll throw herself at any man she thinks might have her. Part of this appears to be simple loneliness, which is understandable — even by Old West standards, she lives in the middle of nowhere. But it also seems as though she’s trapped in a cultural expectation she doesn’t realize society has hardwired into her brain. She wants a husband, and maybe she doesn’t quite know why. It’s what she’s supposed to do. It’s what she was told she had to do. It’s a part of her that she doesn’t fully understand. Or perhaps it’s as simple as it seems — she’s just lonely. Either way, that same cultural expectation is the reason she struggles to find anyone. The men in her life tell her they don’t want her because she’s plain, but it’s more than that. When pressed, they always use the word “bossy.” She’s not a submissive frontier housewife. She probably could never be. Maybe she doesn’t know that she wants to be an equal partner in a relationship, but she does. And that desire is a big part of why it can never happen for her. When she decides to wander off into the desolate plains with a wagonload of dangerous and disturbed women, it seems as much like an act of defiance against the universe itself as some strange chance for her to start anew.

Briggs’ part in this dynamic isn’t immediately clear. Early on, he seems like an unnecessary hanger-on to the plot — I wondered why in the world the film was named after him and why, other than being played by Tommy Lee Jones, he received top billing. As the story advances, it becomes clear. For starters, he’s a fantastic counterpoint to Cuddy’s laser focus, determination, and sheer will. It’s an interesting role for Jones, who usually plays the stoic and wise, salt of the earth, man’s man. Briggs has a bit of that in him, but primarily, he’s a shiftless, selfish, cowardly loser — even after saving his life, Cuddy can only ensure his commitment to the task with the promise of a hefty payment at journey’s end. It’s clear exactly how these two characters will play off one another. And there are some gender dynamics at play here — though neither Briggs nor Cuddy seem intended to represent men and women in general, it’s clear that Briggs, a drunken lout, is playing life on easy mode and has taken and thrown away everything that Cuddy has worked hard for and never fully achieved. That strains the relationship.

And it builds into something very interesting. Something I can’t quite discuss. Suffice to say that same dynamic extends long past the end of the film, with the implication that this journey will be remembered differently from both sides, depending on who’s hearing the story and who’s telling it. Briggs frequently sings a song about a man who was enshrined in legend because of what an idiot he was rather than in spite of it. The film suggests that may happen here as well — that a man who did a lot of bad things and maybe one or two right things (though he even finds a way while doing the right thing to continue doing wrong things) will be remembered across eternity for the latter while the woman who took all of the most courageous steps and managed the situation with compassion and evenness is doomed to be forgotten. Maybe, maybe not. It as, as anything, open to interpretation.

I was surprised to find this actually wasn’t Jones’ directorial debut; rather, it’s his second. In retrospect, I shouldn’t have been. While it does stumble into some of the usual traps of actors branching out into work behind the camera — namely that it struggles to be as suggestive as other comparatively silent works of indie cinema, quietly implying most of its plot and character details but straining to connect them clearly on the screen — it seems somewhat more developed than your average debut, like Jones has at least a distant sense of what his voice is and what his perspective is and how to realize them both. His vision of the West is one of the most uniquely bleak and unsettling takes I can remember seeing — it’s a desolate land, filled with hardship and suffering. It’s so potent that it does sometimes slip into monotony — there’s only so much darkness you can take before it stops meaning anything. Contrast is a useful tool, and The Homesman could use a bit more of it. Still, it has its own look and feel, and I appreciate that, especially when it’s coming from someone whose legend is as an actor and not a director.

At any rate, it opens some fascinating doors and explores the genre uniquely and incisively. It’s not quite an outright deconstruction of the western, but it comes close to it in places. It could stand to be less humorless and dry, but even so, its tone is set in service of a good story with some interesting things to say about its time and place. It’s perhaps worth seeing only once, but it still comes highly recommended for that viewing.

-Matt T.

Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)

Starring- Tom Hardy, Charlize Theron, Nicholas Hoult, Hugh Keays-Byrne, Josh Helman, Nathan Jones, Zoe Kravitz, Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, Riley Keough, Abbey Lee, Courtney Eaton

Director- George Miller

R- intense sequences of violence throughout, and for disturbing images

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hEJnMQG9ev8

And on the seventh day, God rested, and finding nothing good on TV, he said, “Let us create George Miller in our image.” And so it came to pass that in the year of 2015, Mad Max: Fury Road did grace the silver screen, and God saw that it was good.

There is a scene in Mad Max: Fury Road where guys are on top of a moving truck that’s 95 percent sound system fighting with an electric guitar that shoots fire while, in the background, shrieking road warriors armed with explosive spears pole-vault between cars and throw things at each other while other vehicles burst into flames in the background, and at the apex of this scene, I thought to myself, “This is the reason I was born, to sit here in this theater, right now, watching this.” Asking me to critique Mad Max: Fury Road is like asking me to critique chocolate; I’m not sure what I’m supposed to say other than that it’s freaking chocolate. The film’s successes and failures hinge almost entirely on how utterly nuts it is at any given moment, and any person’s enjoyment of this depends solely on whether it tests your limits or doesn’t bend them far enough.

Our new Mad Max, set however many years after the original three films, finds Max Rockatansky (Tom Hardy) wandering the post-apocalyptic wasteland when he is captured by the soldiers of Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne), the cult-like ruler of a small oasis in the middle of the desert who has fashioned his own religion and set himself up as a god. Max is intended to be a “blood bag” for one of Joe’s sickly Warboys, Nux (Nicholas Hoult). However, Max hasn’t been in captivity long when one of Joe’s most trusted generals, Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron), absconds with his enslaved wives in a mad dash for freedom. Max ends up strapped to the front of Nux’s vehicle as an army of Warboys races into the desert to recapture the women — forcing all of them into a reluctant alliance.

Fury Road makes me think that George Miller decided not to direct another Mad Max movie and instead to adapt the cultural stereotype of a Mad Max movie. Because of the random bits of imagery that sank into the cultural consciousness as a result of the first three films, society adopted a view of Mad Max movies as loud, relentlessly action-packed, and extremely weird, which is…true, but maybe not as true as everyone thinks. The first movie in the series is a little bit weird and certainly has a unique take on the apocalypse, but I think it would surprise first-time viewers how grounded it is and how few action sequences there are. The third movie, Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, is indistinguishable from your average late-80s PG-13 blockbuster apart from its strange visual aesthetic and world. The only one of the original films that comes close to meeting that stereotype is The Road Warrior — and even then, I suspect it’s still not as violent or insane as people remember it being.

And now we have Fury Road. It not only meets every stereotype you have of Mad Max, it pushes it as far as it can go until the whole thing explodes in a flurry of weirdness and insanity. It’s amazing to me that the film exists at all in the current cinematic climate — box office smashes like Guardians of the Galaxy have at least opened the door for movies to be a little silly again, but Fury Road is so far beyond the pale. I can’t believe none of the people sinking hundreds of millions of dollars got cold feet when Miller kept sending them goofier and goofier footage from the set. There had to be some point where Miller met with studio executives and said, “I need you to buy 20 cars for me. I’m going to lace them with giant spikes and blow them up in the middle of the desert.” And I just don’t know how the answer to that question was, “Sure, why not?” But I’m glad it was, because the end result is glorious.

Absolutely every dime spent on this movie shows up on-screen. I’m also pretty sure every idea anyone associated with the production had during the process is on there, too. There really isn’t any length this movie doesn’t go to — while it is appropriately contained and isn’t constantly throwing new stuff at you, it is perpetually deepening the ridiculousness it’s already established. At a certain point, you either go along for the ride or you don’t. For the most part, I was quite happy to meet it with an open heart — I have missed movies with their own unique tones, styles, worlds, and aesthetics, and I’m thrilled to see something that’s as cheerfully its own thing as Mad Max: Fury Road is. It isn’t quite like anything you’ve seen before — it isn’t even quite like its predecessors. It definitely has its visual and stylistic connections to the other films in the series; it’s unmistakably part of the same universe. But by deepening the exploitation/genre-flick touches and ratcheting the weirdness up to mind-boggling levels, it sets itself apart and stands as its own entity.

How it wraps all of that up into a package that works at all, much less as well as it does, is a bit of a mystery to me; there’s some sort of alchemy going on here. It wouldn’t be a significant exaggeration to say that Mad Max: Fury Road is a two-hour action sequence. Once Max, Furiosa, and Immortan Joe take their positions in the chase, the action barely ever lets up. There are car chases, explosions, demolition derbies, gunfights, fistfights, swordfights, electric guitar fights (seriously, that bit is 2015’s “robot hitting Godzilla with a boat” moment), a little bit of everything. Every now and then, for five minutes or so, Max, Furiosa, and the wives pull just far enough ahead to briefly exchange character or plot information in the cab of their semi-truck. And then it begins all over again. In any other movie, I would think it was way, way too much, regardless of how well paced it was or how strong the dramatic moments were — just an endless wellspring of overlong action beats.

So the fact that I only once reached a point where I wanted the current action sequence to end is…difficult to explain. Especially since it also happened to be the only action sequence in the movie that didn’t involve car chases.

Certainly, a part of it has to be attributed to what George Miller accomplishes here. I don’t know how else to say it other than that Mad Max: Fury Road is kind of the culmination of his entire career as a director. It amazes me that a 70-year-old man willingly dragged a film crew out in the desert to shoot a movie mainly with elaborate rigs set up on fast-moving vehicles and so much practical stunt work that it’s miraculous he didn’t kill anyone and came out not only with something good but something so energetic and visually adept it puts filmmakers young enough to be his children to shame. While I think The Road Warrior is probably the best film in the series, there’s no doubt in my mind that Fury Road is the best looking. The colors are bright, heavily saturated, and dazzling; the cinematography is sharp and beautiful; the editing and camera movement seem actually impossible — it’s as surprising that this movie didn’t kill any cameramen as it is that it didn’t kill any stuntmen. Of course, the fact that so much of the action is practical is a big part of the film’s success, too — despite how completely out-of-this-world the movie is, its heroes and villains never did a single thing in it that I didn’t thoroughly believe. Miller has staged it extraordinarily well, and he brings an excellent sense of geography to these sequences of mayhem — especially impressive given exactly how much is going on in any given shot. He also defines the physical stakes very clearly — you know who is where, more or less how many vehicles are in the heroes’ and villains’ convoys at any given time, and what their capabilities are.

It also helps that Miller is great at expressing character through the action sequences rather than trying to develop both ends separately. The heroic cast is fun and interesting, and all but one or two of them have actual presence and weight in the plot. Max himself is still a bit blank, but as with its predecessors, the film manages to play that as character — making him a guy whose lack of personality is deliberate, a survival mechanism and the partial end result of him reducing his identity solely to his basic survival needs. I think only the first Mad Max movie was actually his story — in the others, and this one as well, he’s an extremely reluctant hero dragged by necessity into a fight that isn’t his. We end up viewing him the same way as the other characters — some kind of mythological figure, a legend who briefly stumbled into their own story.

It’s Imperator Furiosa who ends up being the film’s breakout character. It’s some of the best work Charlize Theron has done in a while, particularly in an action blockbuster. Her first act in the film is her decision to rebel, freeing her commander’s wives and running away with them — the film doesn’t dig too deeply into her backstory or show the lead-up into her decision to change sides. But Theron finds enough character details under the surface to present her as a worn soul who’s moral compass has finally asserted itself and has at last decided to take her stand. You see some of the fear and uncertainty associated with that, but you can also tell that no matter how shaken she is at leaving the only life she’s ever known, she remains totally resolute in her decision — following the dictates of her conscience has lit a fire under her, and she seems happier and more content than she’s possibly ever been.

Even the wives — there are five of them, so the film can’t really elevate them to the same level of importance as Max and Furiosa — are allowed to be so much more than the usual victims being rescued. They’re not combat-trained, of course, and the film never pretends that they’re going to handle themselves in a fight the same way Max and Furiosa do, but it still allows them to assert their own individual personalities and to contribute meaningfully based on their own skill sets. It’s not a Max Rockatansky movie — in a lot of ways, it’s a team movie, with each member bringing his or her own talents to bear in the struggle to survive. Each of the wives is also dealing with her abuse at the hands of Immortan Joe in her own unique way, and the film finds surprising nuance there, too.

The movie even allows Nux to be a more interesting figure than he would have been elsewhere, even in other installments in this series. I won’t spoil the interesting places his arc takes him, other than to say that he ends up being a lot more than your typical shrieking, silly-costume-wearing Mad Max baddie.

These characters react to the action sequences in very individualized ways and express their personalities through the means by which they rise to their increasing challenges. That helps keep the relentless, over-the-top action more interesting than it might otherwise be.

It’s been stunning to watch this goofy, fever-pitched, post-apocalyptic exploitation flick become one of the most universally beloved movies in actual years. Boyhood and Selma were the only Best Picture nominees last year that received better reviews — and even Selma gets stricken from the list if you’re counting average rating instead of percentage. That’s nuts. You’d think at least someone would watch this movie and be too weirded out to like it. Movies like Mad Max are supposed to appeal to niche interests. Apparently, the niche has expanded.

It leaves me feeling a bit alone in liking it a lot rather than thinking it’s one of the best action movies ever made. I think the score is an unusually big part of that — that seems like a small complaint, but in my opinion, it impacts the film significantly. I find that the most entertaining parts of the film are even more entertaining in the trailers where the music is light and bombastic; the contrast only emphasizes the silliness of what you’re seeing — and in a good way. The actual score is a little too dark and bleak — Mad Max has always worn its depressing, disturbing realities underneath the surface, lending texture to the goofy, fun bits. Here, it too readily jumps off the screen. This, for the record, is a big part of the reason why I prefer The Road Warrior — everything in that movie is in perfect lockstep with its chosen tone. I’ll also admit that the characters’ arcs, while structured and apparent enough to be considered complete and coherent, didn’t always register emotionally — a little too much tell and not enough show, and a few too many hallucinatory flashbacks. Of course, I don’t know that the film could be as tightly wound and fun as it is if it devoted additional run-time to those purposes. It has a tight sense of visual economy and would struggle to leave its main plot like that. Maybe the more reasonable conclusion would be to say that this is the first movie that tries to have its silly, anarchic, immoral action-fest and its thematic weight at the same time and doesn’t always blend that well.

But I can only have minimal complaints about a movie where Charlize Theron has a robot hand. I can only wholeheartedly welcome a movie that so thoroughly embraces its own insanity — especially when it does it so, so well. I don’t think it’s quite the best Mad Max movie — though it’s a very close second — but it’s certainly the maddest Mad Max movie. It has to be seen to be believed, and it’s definitely worth the believing.

-Matt T.

Still Alice (2014)

Starring- Julianne Moore, Kate Bosworth, Shane McRae, Hunter Parrish, Alec Baldwin, Kristen Stewart, Stephen Kunken

Directors- Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland

PG-13- mature thematic material, and brief language including a sexual reference

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZrXrZ5iiR0o

Still Alice netted exactly one Oscar nomination — and subsequent win — and that was Julianne Moore for Best Actress in the title role of Alice Howland, a college professor and renowned linguist who, shortly after her 50th birthday, is diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s disease. It’s a fairly accurate summation of the film as a whole — you have Julianne Moore and Alice Howland carrying it through to conclusion. Everything outside of them, however, is less powerful.

Still Alice is a good movie primarily because its needs are so simple. With a premise like this, you only really need two things: a character we like/understanding, and an actress capable of selling her condition. Still Alice has plenty of both.

Alice Howland is not necessarily one of the year’s most interesting or original characters, but she’s still three-dimensional, detailed, and recognizably human — and more importantly, the perfect subject for this fictional account of a real-world problem. I suppose you could call it manipulative that the character the story creates is one so perfectly positioned to be absolutely devastated in the wake of an affliction like Alzheimer’s — a highly educated, fast-paced, university professor and scholar who seems to define her personhood as a function of her wit and intelligence — and I guess it is, a bit. Still, it’s not outside the realm of possibility, and it allows the film an easy way to define its protagonist’s relationship with her mind subtly but so that its viewers can quickly understand the situation. It’s more important to examine the aftermath than the lead-up, perhaps, so it makes sense to use that sort of shorthand — and anyway, Still Alice mostly does it gracefully. Despite the height of her achievements, Alice never comes across as superhuman — just a very smart, but also very ordinary, human being.

And Julianne Moore is able to live in that space like she’s been doing it her entire life. The challenge behind a role like this is the very obvious but gradual change in the character’s demeanor as the film goes on. There’s no way to skate around it or to hold it quietly in the background — scene to scene, you have to know exactly where the character is, what she remembers, how much her condition has worsened, how she’s feeling about that, how much she’s even able to feel about that. It’s a role where the central character not only changes by the end — that’s most movies — but one where her self-concept changes, too, not only in that she sees herself differently but in that her ability to perceive herself is altered. Moore nails it. I don’t know that there’s a lot more to be said on that subject.

Still Alice is very much her movie. There’s the character, there’s the actress, and nearly all of the story’s needs are on their shoulders. It doesn’t work at all if one of them comes up short. If they’re both in top form, you’re guaranteed to emerge with something that’s at least decent. Still Alice reaches that point easily. But you need more than that if you’re going to hit greatness, and that’s where the movie falters a bit.

The problem, simply put, is that nothing else in the film is as interesting as Moore or the character she plays. That’s true on a character level — the supporting players are restricted mainly to Alice’s immediate family, and while they’re not outright blanks, their reaction to the situation doesn’t get much screen-time. It’s sketched in broad terms — sometimes to something approaching adequacy, like with Alice’s husband (Alec Baldwin), but often to nothing in particular, like with all of Alice’s children not played by Kristen Stewart. It is, to be fair, Alice’s movie, but it’s also more than that — it plays like an attempt to provide the public with emotional context for Alzheimer’s disease, and exploring its effect on the people around you is part of that, not only because they’re important to but because their reactions will feed back into the emotional state of the person actually diagnosed with the disease. Still Alice finds too little nuance in these characters and their relationship to its protagonist.

I even think that the film isn’t quite up to snuff visually. It’s fine, I suppose — the directors, Wash Westmoreland and the late Richard Glatzer, who died of ALS mere months after the film’s release, at least know their way around the basic “rules” of cinema. Still, stylistically and tonally, there’s something about Still Alice that simply comes across as bland. It tells its story well enough but doesn’t take any particularly noteworthy risks with the material. It looks, sounds, and feels about the way you’d expect.

But I think both of those criticisms are trifling in the grand scheme of things. The biggest issue, as I perceive it, is that Still Alice struggles to develop the most interesting ideas inherent as its premise. To its credit, it does some of what I want out of a movie like this — it shows you a situation with which you might be unfamiliar and draws out some of the details only known to someone who has directly experienced it. Personally, I don’t have much experience with Alzheimer’s — no one close to me has yet dealt with it. I emerged from Still Alice understanding the circumstance better, and that’s great. My issue is more that it raises all these interesting possibilities and insights and never explores them to fruition. It simply mentions them and then moves along to the next thing. It hovers over all of these interesting ideas — the way Alice’s disease impacts her family, Alice’s own attempts at finding meaning and purpose as her mind deteriorates, the essentials of the human need for dignity — finds just enough nuance to make you think there’s a great story to be told there, and then never mentions them again. There’s one point where Alice has begun to lose details and specifics but is still more or less functional where she starts using her illness as a trump card to get her family to do what she wants — for example, pressing her youngest daughter to drop her acting dreams and go to college before she’s no longer mentally present enough to be there for her. That’s a fascinating bit of character detail — and outside of the scene in which it first appears, it is never raised again. There’s also a significant revelation early on — Alice’s condition is hereditary, any of her children who carry the gene have a 100 percent chance of being diagnosed when they reach the same age, and there’s a test they can take to determine if they’re carriers or not. One of her children is. There’s one scene where that child reacts to this news and Alice clearly begins developing a guilt complex out of the belief that it’s her fault. That, too, could be a movie all its own — how in the world do you deal with being a 20-something on the verge of starting a family and realizing you are already halfway through your mind’s useful life and that you have a 50/50 chance of passing that along to the children you’ve been planning on having? And how to you, as that 20-something’s mother, deal with the guilt that’s inevitably going to come with that? How does that change the dynamic between the two of you? I don’t know, because the film doesn’t make so much as a peep about this situation for the rest of its run-time. Honestly, the fact that the story’s decision to make Alice’s disease genetic has so little effect on the direction it takes makes me wonder why it was included at all. It has a profound emotional effect on the viewer and fundamentally alters the context of absolutely everything you’re seeing on screen but is completely left hanging. It’s easily the most unsatisfying thing in the film.

I don’t really fault Still Alice for not arriving at any good answers to the questions it raises — honestly, are there any, with a situation like this? You come up with the answers that satisfy you, or you decide there aren’t any. And that’s about it. I just wish it were less scattershot in its approach. It leaves Still Alice as a film that’s mostly emotionally engaging but that doesn’t have much of a story behind it and doesn’t conclude with any real resolution. Actually, I don’t know that end credits have ever surprised me as much as they did here. One minute, there’s a scene, and it doesn’t feel like a resolution to the story and themes but is still a nice character moment and continues things nicely. Then, credits suddenly appear. I think I actually said, “Oh, that’s it? Huh,” out loud.

I know I’ve spent a lot more time on criticism than praise, but you shouldn’t take that ratio as indicative of the film’s quality. It simply stems from the fact that the things it does well are simple and the things it doesn’t are more complex. Still Alice remains an emotionally involving and well-acted piece of work — and also well written, at least where its central character is concerned. And even though the insight it gave me into Alzheimer’s disease was fairly minimal, it was still something. I think that alone justifies every mistake it makes.

-Matt T.

Mr. Turner (2014)

Starring- Timothy Spall, Dorothy Atkinson, Marion Bailey, Paul Jesson, Lesley Manville, Martin Savage, Ruth Sheen

Director- Mike Leigh

R- some sexual content

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7GKlo2xWvuI

WARNING: Matt knows nothing about the art of painting and would never have heard of J.M.W. Turner if not for this film, so he is about to say a great many ignorant things. END WARNING.

Watching Mr. Turner, it gradually became clear to me that director Mike Leigh and I are of the same mind on at least one topic — a mutual fascination with the great artist who’s also a terrible person and how, exactly, that guy gets to be that way.

The story of 19th-century British painter J.M.W. Turner (Timothy Spall), as told in Mr. Turner, seems ripe for exploring — he’s a transcendent artist and someone the film suggests is the grandfather of abstract art; he’s also a boorish, arrogant, insensitive clod who sexually exploits his beleaguered housekeeper and pointedly ignores his numerous illegitimate children.

The question seems trifling, but it’s one that concerns me deeply as someone interested in artistic pursuits (even if mine are more narrative for lack of a better word). I’d never suggest that anyone is even close to perfect — we all have our demons, we all have our flaws, and we all will at some point in our lives (if indeed we haven’t already) appear to the outside observer as the absolute worst person in the room. But then, there are those people for whom this is never even in question — unless you’ve got a despot or a serial killer on hand, they’re always the worst person in the room. Their worldviews are skewed, their actions are hateful, and every one of their decisions is wrong by every metric. The existence of these people isn’t always in itself confounding, but in conjunction with the great art they’re sometimes capable of creating, the question emerges. To me — and to many others who are interested in such things — artistic endeavors seem inherently to be exercises in empathy with others or of connecting intelligently with your own self and the reasons behind your feelings and actions. As stated, no one will ever be perfect, but wouldn’t such an activity inherently improve you? And yet, there are people like Mr. Turner as interpreted by this film — people who seem resolutely opposed to changing or even recognizing their flaws and somehow remain able to create absolute masterpieces that inspire rich feeling and necessary contemplation. What does creativity mean to these people? What’s their philosophy about it?

To its credit, Mr. Turner manages to get beneath the surface of this question without ever providing any one specific answer to it. It gives you a detailed portrait of the man and leaves you with enough cues to extrapolate some of what the artistic process means to him. Some of it is obvious — there may be a touch of ego in his creativity, a need to be recognized as gifted and valuable. But it’s far more complicated than that.

To me, it appears as though the J.M.W. Turner of the film needs art because, for him, it’s a mechanism of control. He, like any of us, struggles to deal with the pains and trials of his life and desperately tries to bring those into his own hands — we see this in the way, after enduring a personal tragedy, he turns to a prostitute for comfort and, before actually having sex, spends minutes meticulously arranging her to be as perfect and beautiful as one of his paintings. He has that same approach to much of his life outside of his art — the relationships he holds closest to his heart are the ones in which he is most dominant. He can predict and understand them. They are incapable of causing him any pain. In the end, the only way he can cope with his problems is by committing them to the canvas — and that, perhaps, only burdens him further as he begins realizing his feelings in abstraction and subsequently experiencing rejection from his formerly adoring public. When his honest and true self emerges, the people in his life retreat from him, sharpening his own resentment and ego.

It takes gifted filmmakers to maintain the balance something like Mr. Turner asks of us. J.M.W. Turner is objectively terrible. He has room in his heart for very few people, and it’s not difficult to make the argument that he’s an actual rapist. But the film does get to the heart of the man underneath, and you do manage to empathize with him — if not celebrate him or much of what he does. It examines the terrible person and finds the good person he could be, under the right circumstances — perhaps, along the way, suggesting that the bad person can produce great art because no one is wholesale evil. Perhaps creative expression realizes the part of us, however small, that aspires to greatness.

For the most part, I like the way the film tells this story. The descriptor “character study” is another one of those phrases that’s been abused to the point that it doesn’t really mean anything anymore, but I think it’s warranted in the case of Mr. Turner. The film doesn’t have much of a plot — it doesn’t hone in on a particularly interesting period of Turner’s life, one that finds him as the protagonist in a specific conflict that he experienced. It also doesn’t go the typical biopic route and tell his story from birth to death. Rather, it selects one chapter of his life and examines him in a variety of settings — with friends, with family, with the art community, in his work, in his relationships, in his isolation — in an attempt to peel back the layers and get to the man behind the iconic paintings. It’s low-key, unpretentious, and largely insightful.

It’s also gorgeous. It has to be intimidating to make a film about a great visual artist — you have to be certain you have the chops to pull it off on your end. Leigh and cinematographer Dick Pope (Oscar-nominated for his work here) are up to the task. Mr. Turner is one of the best shot, best lit, and best constructed films of 2014. It sets some of the year’s most resplendent nature photography against a backdrop of soft, painterly colors and moves with grace and beauty. For its visuals alone, Mr. Turner is worth seeing.

But for everything in the story that was intriguing and insightful, there was almost as much that had little effect on me — at two and a half hours, it’s at least a full hour too long and tends to tread redundant ground. There are also numerous scenes that seemed to me to be lacking anything in particular to say. And as great as he is on the whole, there’s enough caricature in Timothy Spall’s performance to prevent me from joining the chorus calling it one of the year’s best. There is a character here, and Spall manages to fill him with life and detail. But the decision to make him this lumbering, ape-like figure who communicates mainly in grunts feels like the step too far — straining to add a superficial layer to the hidden ugliness of the man that the storytelling has already made quite apparent on his own.

But that aside, Mr. Turner is an outstanding character study/biopic, one that raises interesting questions and proposes thought-provoking and complex answers. And if only for its stellar visuals, it merits at least one viewing.

-Matt T.