Thirty six years later, with the release of the grandly, boisterously cinematic carnival opera of Mad Max: Fury Road, it is difficult to peer back through the looking glass and glimpse the humble origins of the Mad Max fiction. It is difficult to remember that, for all its commercial and critical success, the 1979 release of Mad Max was nothing more than a budget of 400,000 dollars (a paltry sum then and now) and one of the great modern cinematic visualists doing everything they could together to disturb, provoke, and ultimately, to entertain and thrill. It is difficult to remember how intimately inhuman the original Mad Max is, how nonchalantly brutal and matter-of-factly nihilistic it is in its almost impressionist depiction of apocalypse and social malaise propped up by stunning, startling car chases of unquenchable viciousness. It is also difficult, in lieu of the great majesty of the second film in the series, Mad Max 2:the Road Warrior, to remember how effective the original grinding house classic of action entertainment is to this day. Continue reading
George Miller really wanted Mad Max: Fury Road. The back-story, the thirty year gap between Fury Road and its predecessor Mad Mad: Beyond Thunderdome, and the troubled, stop-start production for Fury Road itself all conspire to tell us this much. The beauty of the resulting film is that this back-story is both instantly extraneous and essential to unlocking its mysteries. All the hurt, all the torment, all the passion to release that which had been denied to Miller; all are instantly identifiable on the screen, but the film speaks for itself. Right before it blows your head off, but that is the Miller way. After releasing two extraordinary vehicles for tactile, sand-encrusted action under the Mad Max name, he went Hollywood and lost his edge with the third feature, the one whose biggest addition was Tina Turner. He spent the ensuing thirty years intermittently pursuing his craft in often stellar family films to recuperate, but his heart was elsewhere. Continue reading
From Russia with Love is a curious beast. It does not “work” according to the distinct rhymes and reasons of what would become the “Bond film” archetype. It does not establish its own vision of what cinema ought to be, as so many other Bond films went on to do, starting with the very next film in the series, Goldfinger. It lacks the pop art, it lacks the pizzaz, it lacks the chutzpah of those other glammy, punchy Bond films that established a certain modern cool-chic lifestyle porn take on watching movies simply because they could give you visions of things that life in its mundane reality never could. On most of the basic “rules” by which Bond films are generally judged, it doesn’t even attempt to pass muster. In fact, it is, excepting its predecessor Dr. No, a work that could charitably be described as “mundane”.
But Terrence Young’s film may very well be the best film in the entire series, and it may be the best specifically for how it does not meaningfully have anything to do with “being a Bond film”. What the lack of a formula bestows upon it is the freedom to simply focus on being itself, on being the best individual film freed from the expectations and rules of a specific form and a style. It is freed to the point where it can utilize its editing, its framing, its acting, and its writing, to simply be the best film it can be, freed from any expectations in the world of fitting a well-defined formula. Continue reading
At some level, we must concede that Michael Curtiz was more of a filmmaker of efficient craftmaking than superlative artistic ambition; this sense of getting-the-job-done pervades even his masterpiece, Casablanca, but gosh darn it, well-oiled-machine filmmaking has never been more delectable than Michael Curtiz filmmaking. The perpetually underrated master of the craft was no auteur, nor did he want to be, but his films sparkle with single-minded clarity and blunt craft like nothing else from the Hollywood machine in its early days. Again, he was a studio guy for Warner Bros and he always operated with a sort of humility to his stories that saw him not so much take control of them and do with them as he would; rather, he focused on a propulsive forward movement to his tales, a sort of inescapable quality that made the stories feel like they were telling themselves first and foremost. Yet Curtiz was always there, making functional filmmaking the food of the gods and cutting through the fat to produce films that, if not entirely perfect or challenging in the most overt of ways, were at east the most perfect versions of themselves. Continue reading
That Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning exists indicates something is wrong with the world. That it is, against its better judgment, a near masterpiece, at least in terms of filmmaking principles and matching those principles to its narrative concerns, implies something is far worse with the world than anyone could have imagined. But yes, the fourth or eighth or ninety-sixth film in the bro-fest science fiction routine slaughterhouse that is the Universal Soldier series, tangled up in its Roland Emmerich-directed roots and choking on them for decades now, is good. In fact, in its own way, it’s fairly great. And how shocking that this way approximates ’70s art-house horror/crime/thriller/ sci-fi that only passingly gestures toward any idea of “action” and even then does wonders to detach “action” from anything resembling Roland Emmerich. What a strange, strange film. Plus, if it means anything to you, it is probably, by several orders of magnitude, superior to anything Dolph Lundgren or Jean-Claude Van Damme have starred in (although the post-structuralist JCVD, a sly little nightstalker of a film, comes pretty close for the latter star). Pleasures abound in this weird, weird world of ours, folks. Continue reading
So much has been written about American Sniper over the past few months, about its unkempt, pro-war patriotism and its torn apart anti-war expose of human trauma, that it is somewhat shocking how little has been said about the one thing that really reveals its essence: Clint Eastwood. Whichever stance Sniper takes, it is unquestionably the work of its director, the old individualist who loves to raise the American male up on a pedestal of his own making and tear him down again, and the only filmmaker working today who understands the old-school spirit of mid-century genre pics by the likes of Sam Fuller, Sam Peckinpah, and John Sturges. American Sniper is at its best, and its worst, when it is most similar to its subject Chris Kyle, knowing his clean, blunt efficiency to a fault, and sharing not a little of his single-minded apprehension for anything out of its sights. Continue reading
Rare is a film of such purity as Kill Bill, and rarer still is a film of such purity that is never less than fully confused and unsure of itself. From beginning to end, Kill Bill is entirely the artwork of an unabashed enthusiast and filmmaker, but it is a deeply perplexed film, perhaps intentionally so, and perhaps to its unmitigated benefit. Purring like a kitten on the surface but deceptively self-critical underneath, Tarantino’s most violent film also has more to say about violence than any of his films. It is a work that is simultaneously enraptured in love with itself and tearing itself apart in disharmonious hate, and thus certainly his most fascinating, conflicted piece yet. This doesn’t make it necessarily better or worse, but it may make it his most worthwhile film, especially because it never once allows us the confidence of our views in it. We can’t even really be sure if Tarantino “gets” it, and auteur theory isn’t going to help us one lick, unless of course it’s there in the background reminding us that Tarantino just can’t make an uninteresting film– even when doesn’t have a clue himself. Kill Bill can’t make an argument that Tarantino understands his own particular brand of proudly filmic anti-film commentary on the nature of cinema and violence. It may be him missing the forest of his own genius for the crimson-red trees of flailing arms and heads. But what a forest. And what trees.