“Mad Max: Fury Road”

In this George Miller film, the characters’ brains have morphed from gray matter to black matter. To survive is the single instinct left. The film could be derided as “Chains, Cranes and High-Octane-Thrown-Together-War-Mobiles”, but this dystopian mayhem has some creative must sees. The Pole-Cat Gang is impressive in their leaps and sways, and the re-purposed junk is as imaginative being jerry-rigged as it is falling apart. The standard shoe-fitting Brannock device as gas pedal, the tea strainer nose guard, the skull steering wheel and groin-protector codpiece, and baby-doll-head necklace are cooler than the two-headed lizard.Throw in a car door warrior’s shield, and a souped-up guitar spewing sperm-like fire, and you can see how anger can fuel innovation.

Running from the living and the dead, Mad Max (Tom Hardy) believes as he says:”Hope is a mistake. If you can’t fix what is broken, you will go insane”. Like Hannibal Lector of “Silence of The Lambs “fame, Max is harnessed with a steel grill mask. He eats things. As he teams up with Furiosa (Charlize Theron),she looks at him and says,”You want that thing off your face?” Theron is the head-shaven ,rogue driver of War Rig. Her job was to transport fuel, but now she has joined the women, or Vuvalini (one knows that one will transpose a few letters here) and deliver her female cargo to safety. Five beautiful breeders are attempting freedom. And all the women are keen on keeping their babies from becoming warlords.

The setting is absent of anything green. Water~known as Aqua-Cola~is used by the powerful Immortan Joe at whim. His little boys are all coated in whitewash once the breeders deliver. Mother-milking contraptions add to the craziness. Everything is a souped-up machine. He engineers cranks that turn waterfalls on and off. He barks nonsense to his subjects:”Don’t become addicted to water or you will resent its absence.” Sandblasted tornadoes of dust cover everything.

I was bored with the reddish canyons and the driving to and from salt flats a few times in this action movie. I longed for the green place,too. I thought the change to blue night scenes was ingenious,and I did like the huge image of Mad Max’s head in its beetle-like emergence from a sand hill.

Furiosa is to break every female stereotype of the fifties. This gal gives “grease-paint” a new meaning,and she is great at compass direction and vehicle mechanics,exhorting lines like,”I think it is the fuel pod.” With three war parties following her, she kicks and shoots, once using Max’s shoulder as a cushion as she tells him not to breathe.

I will say loudly that the dialogue is horrendous. “She is hurt.She is hurt real bad.” may be the worst. “By the way,my name is Max,” a close second. One longs for the plains of silence. The film’s nomenclature hints at comedy:my “neck mates”, Larry and Barry;”guzzaline” for gasoline,”bullet farmers”; and “booty” for the round-rumpled breeders.

With salutations to Tolkien’s orcs and Rome’s Coliseum crowds,Miller’s sequel is not “perfect in every way”, but it is his baby, just not my “cup of tea”.

“Kumiko The Treasure Hunter”

“We all have our own paths” is one of the few sentences spoken by our deluded dreamer protagonist, Kumiko. That some paths are hopelessly crazy yet understandable seems to be the theme. That a determined twenty-nine year old Japanese girl rebels in fantasy and demands privileged status because she “has important things to do” is the storyline. I came away from this film annoyed. Place an unhinged black girl in the script and we would have a different tale.

Everyone is so nice to Kumiko with the exception of her mother,whom our treasure hunter calls three times during her journey to escape life’s expectations of marriage by twenty-five and children by twenty-nine.Kumiko blames her work strife on jealous co-workers. And mom pipes up with ” why would they be jealous of you!”. In truth, her boss Sakigami has her buying his wife’s anniversary gifts, taking his trousers to the cleaners,and making him tea. He complains of her poor disposition.But Kumiko spits in his tea cups,tosses his pants in the trash,and steals his credit card. Her mother asks her if she got a promotion,if she is dating anyone or if she is pregnant. Everyone laughs at grounded mother’s ” why don’t you” suggestive pressure”!

Kumiko’s cold determination and ill preparation is counterbalanced by everyone’s hospitality and warmth. The film’s humor is always laced at the good souls’ expense ,as if aid to Kumiko is foolish and self-serving. I loved the old woman who offered to take her to the Mall of America! Our directors are poking fun at the dreamers in U.S. all. Taken that the Zellner brothers use the Coen brothers’ film “Fargo” as the crux of Kumiko’s “discovery” and the Johnny Merzer lyrics, “Dream when you are blue..dream, dream, dream”, the tone for nihilistic snarkiness is set. Human striving is reduced to a woman walking around in the Minnesota- cold with a stolen bedspread wrapped arround her and a policeman trying to entertain a foreign visitor with American-folklore about Paul Bunyon and Babe minus an appendage.

The overscored music does a good job in mimicking  brain cell distress and addlednessin Kumiko. Sean Porter as Director of Photography captures Rinko Kikuchi’s lovely face and loping walk, her disheveled apartment,and her otherworldly longing with aplomb. She is meek. She is stubborn. She is simple as she steals a library reference book and bribes the guard for only page seventy-five,needed for her destiny. Much is made in this film of maps. I think it is a guy thing. The misfoldings,the careful embroidering of the x marking the spot, the male tourist aids suggesting a yellow markered trip tic state map, all contribute to the making fun with quirky asides.

As I write this,I marvel at all that does happen:the religious guidance,the flat tire,the carpel tunnel joke,the Chinese dinner and bogus translation of all things Asian, and the stiffing of a deaf cabbie and an Indian motel owner for This movie often moves and sounds like brain freeze.

I’ll remember the slurping noodles scene and Bunzo,the bunny,abandoned on a high speed train. “Freedom is an excuse for nothing left to lose” Janis Joplin lyrics don’t play here. Kumiko thinks money,her treasure, will raise her up. She lies,cheats, and steals and her consciousness never rises to ski-lift heights. Her precision is lost in the New World’s snow banks and on the flushed,unspooled tape and flash forward whizz and backward clicks of an old video machine.

Kumiko tries to escape life by modeling herself after the Spanish Conquistadors with her charts and notebook of clues.She sadly succeeds in her escape. You may feel like you have,too,as you leave the theater.

“Far From The Madding Crowd”

Why do we pick the men we do? Women’s selections of male companions must have intrigued Thomas Hardy for as a Victorian novelist much of his work centers on the psychological dynamics of male/female relationships. In “Far From The Madding Crowd”, the independently spirited and capriciously frank Bathsheba Everdene is proposed to by three men: Gabriel Oaks (Matthias Schoenaerts), Mr. William Boldwood ( Michael Sheen),and Sergeant Francis Troy (Tom Sturridge).

“Meet me in the hollow of the ferns”… may be my favorite line. Having seen the 1967 film version crafted with Terence Stamp, Alan Bates, Peter Finch, and Julie Christie, I was not expecting to love Carey Mulligan in the role of Bathsheba. But,I did. I liked this 2014 costume drama better than John Schlesinger’s. In fact,the entire story is told better under the direction of Thomas Vinterberg.Watch the u-tube trailers of the 1967 version and see Julie  Christie screaming her lines as she plays haughtiness over Mulligan’s willfulness.

The film opens in 1870 Dorset. We are in Hardy country~ southwestern England, Wessex. There are variegated coasts, rolling heaths,verdant forests and luxuriant farmlands. Yet, we begin in the dark and a door opens with light and Bathsheba. A voice-over tells us her circumstances.Bathsheba is too wild to be a governess. She shows us her resourcefulness ,and she knows her power. In the open,free countryside,her independence grows and becomes her sense of pride.

Gabriel, a neighbor and the sturdy oak, has 100 acres of land and 200 sheep. He gives Bathsheba a young lamb and proposes marriage stating that “I will always be there for you.” She rebuffs him with stating that she does not wish to be tamed or married. Gabriel’s  financial fortunes are reversed when his border- collie- in -training impetuously leads his herd over a cliff. All die in the early morning surf. Mr. Gabriel Oaks is hired by Bathsheba to shepherd her interests in barley and wheat grain. She states to her inherited staff that it is her intention to astonish them all.

Sergeant Francis Troy with his scarlet uniform, dark hair and brassy gleam seduces Bathsheba with his sword exercises of trust, thrust , and danger. He tells her she is beautiful and needs to be kissed.Gabriel warns her to stay clear of him and not to believe him :”I care for you too much to see you go to ruin because of him.” A storm ensues as a presage of doom. Bathsheba marries Troy as he gambles,withholds knowledge of a former lover,and drinks French brandy to excess. Poor choice that he is, it is  ironic that he tells her, “I have made a terrible mistake” when we all know that she has.

Mr. Boldwood’s character is changed the most from Hardy’s 1870 novel. His backstory has the country gossips report that he was jilted by a former lover and is a confirmed bachelor because of this. Bathsheba and her aide Liddie tease him with a valentine. Boldwood becomes obsessed with Bathsheba and interrupts a dinner celebration where Gabriel is being lauded for saving Bathsheba’s ewes from clover bloat. Boldwood sings a ballad with Bathsheba where the refrain is “red rose bush how my loved slighted me/I chose the willow tree”. Boldwood presses her for an answer to his marriage proposal. He seems anything but bold when he notes her lack of desire for him. The theater audience laughed at his next lines: “I don’t mind if you marry me for pity.” Boldwood seems weak,never threatening. This change provides for more cinematic tension and then shock as the story proceeds.

Hardy revels in the way people form ideas about a loved one. In delusion,delirium or detachment,human pride holds strong.Bathsheba’s “Gab,I have been a fool” holds even stronger.

Hardy,as a romantic realist and a Victorian used hands to picture the inner workings of the heart. This new film version of the novel understands Hardy’s prose.”Gabriel’s fingers alighted on the young woman’s wrist. It was beating with a throb of intensity. He had frequently felt the same hard,quick beat in the femoral artery of his lambs when overdriven…” Count how many times Bathsheba’s hands and wrists are framed by the camera~limp as she stumbles out if the fern forest,locked as she remains headstrong. Thighs are eschewed here,but passion does flame in nineteen century style.

Anyway, enjoy a great adaptation and even revisit the novel or compare the earlier film and post your own insights in the comment section below.

“The Salt Of The Earth”

“You are the salt of the earth,but if the salt loses its savor how can it be made salty again?” Matthew 5:13

The less than two hour documentary “The Salt Of The Earth” lets us bask in beautiful French and Portuguese subtitles while exploring the spirituality and life work of the Brazilian-photographer,Sebastiao Salgado. When Salgado is on screen, he is artistically lighted with his bushy, gray eyebrows and aquiline nose and bald pate asking us to look more deeply. Co-directed by his son,Juliano Salgado, and Wim Wenders,this is a paean to a life of personal self-sacrifice in bearing witness to some of  this century’s most horrendous man-against-man violence. Munching on salted popcorn,alone,this was painful. My own spirit became deadened and my popcorn lost its savor. Guiltily,I wrestled with the beauty of the images: Niger 1973, the direct, drought- ridden stare of a woman not finding water; Ethiopia,where Coptic Christians leave the open caskets of dead babies not baptized,their eyes rigidly opened so that they can find their way out of limbo; Sudan 1984, images of starvation in Mali.

Salgado,an economist by training,became an adventurer and a photographer with the support of his wife,Leila. Leaving his family of two sons(one handicapped),Salgado is gone for months at a time. He documents the world with light and shadow,photographing groups of people in beautiful,starkly remote settings. Liberation Theology and Doctors Without Borders inform his awareness, and his images ours. He tells us that his “weapon of choice” is the camera. He states that the power of a portrait lies in the fraction of a second.

In Tanzania 1994: refugees are photographed;in Rwanda, genocide; in Yugoslavia,violence and contagious hatred; in Bosnia, piles of corpses and a schoolroom of skulls. Ten and a half years of travel adds Russia, Calcutta,and Kuwait. Salgado announces that his soul is sick, and so is ours. The recorder of images of devastation turns to nature photography. Here we see frames of shimmering iguana paws,gray surf and  brown velvet walruses with white gleaming tusks, silvered-lighted whales and eye -connecting gorillas.

In their book “Genesis 2013”,Salgado and Leila take a positive stance. One half of plant life still exists; they “jumpstart despair”. Returning to Brazil,they become rooted in place,planting more than two and one half million trees on the cattle farm of Salgado’s birth. The land becomes a model for how abused land can be reforested.

While the film can feel like National Geographic on steroids, the artfulness of the photography and the forgiveness and obvious pride of the son and co-director make seeing “The Salt Of The Earth” a thoughtful homage.

“The Age Of Adaline”

The American politician Adlai Stevenson is credited with the statement:” It is not the years in your life,but the life in your years that counts.” Certainly, the protagonist in the movie “The Age of Adaline” would agree. Yet at 107, who wouldn’t enjoy over nine decades of being eternally desirable by any number of handsome men? Who wouldn’t bask in being the Trivia Pursuit queen or the master of many languages and have pet dogs whose lineage parades through eighty years? Harrison Ford’s comment to his former lover (Blake Lively)”you have lived,but you never had a life” doesn’t ring true to me.

The silly stuff is the talk of nucleic acid jumbo and of telomeres being lengthened by a core body temperature of 87 degrees and then a direct lightening strike. This is what keeps the lovely Adaline from aging past twenty-nine. She has researched her condition when she had a job at a California school of medicine. She has concluded that there is no scientific reason for her agelessness.She now must keep moving and changing her name, her job,and her residence every decade or she will be pursued as a curiosity,a specimen, to be categorized and studied. Even the FBI tries to haul her in and run tests!

All of this being said,the movie is fun to watch. We see love at first sight and its fireworks, hear smart repartee,and revisit the Italian adage that “years,lovers, and glasses of wine should never be counted.” One of my favorite being the elevator come-on : “I’d like to spend twenty floors with you!”

We get lots of aerial views and starry skies. One lover who resurfaces forty-five years later as the father of a new beau is an astronomer (Harrison Ford) ,who has named a comet after her. Ellis,his son,is currently in love with her. He is wealthy,a philanthropist and on every civic board imaginable. He donates classics to the library and romantically hands her a flower- book-bouquet of Dandelion Wine,White Oleander,and Daisy Miller. We see a frame of an open book with its pages fluttering just like her librarian heart! “Let Go” becomes their mantra when she breathily asks, “Tell me something I can hold onto and never let go”.

The film is told initially in narrative. We hear of Adaline’s husband Prescott and their daughter,Fleming. Fleming played beautifully by Helen Burstyn is introduced later as the ageless Adaline’s grandmother. Their odd relationship is loving even when Fleming is fixated on ailments and retirement homes as her mother has captured a new beau young enough to be her great-grandson. Adaline,now under the alias “Jennifer” has nothing but the future. As she smirks at her daughter’s request for a picture,”seen one photo of me, you have seen them all.”

I liked how the young actor who played the young Harrison Ford sounded just like him~ a little bit of kitsch,here.And Michiel Huisman’s line to the older Harrison was romantic:” because nothing makes sense without her”.The throwing of cars keys ~ a classic father/son thing.

Golden Gate Bridge images and the words “very close” get trying, but as a vehicle for Blake Lively’s role as a Kate-Hudson-lookalike and for Kathy Baker to play another jealous, irate wife, the set is ready. I kept waiting for Adaline to revert to an aged zombie,but I am not the normal sixty-seven year old who may find solace in sharing aging with a soulmate. Does embracing gray hair really mean one is capable of change?

“The Water Diviner”

There is a lot of “Hollywood” in the romantic anti-war movie “The Water Diviner”, but there are some good lines and grand sentiments delivered,too. Imagine Russell Crowe riding a white steed along side his new-found friend cantering on a black one. The friend the same Turkish military officer fighting against all three of your sons in Gallipoli circa 1915. You have the image:Crowe (Mr. Joshua Conner) is a hero who can forgive,divine the hidden (water and sons), and save a surprise slaughter with a cricket stick. He also,besides sticking by a suicidal wife, mentors a young boy and captures the love of a beautiful Turkish widow. Crowe is the director,too!

The action begins with close-ups of Turkish preparations for war. We see dust and death,but the music is too loud to allow for the soulful images to sink in. Based on truth,we know many Aussies joined the British in fighting the red and white crescent and starred flag of the Turks.The walled trenches became prisons of death.The brutal hand-to-hand,head bashing combat that is portrayed here are some of the hardest frames to watch. War is seen as viscerally savage.

The story does not unfold chronologically. We have flashbacks and jerking “four years before ” screen memos. We are introduced to Lizzy,Conner’s wife, and we hear him reading “The Arabian Nights” to his three sons. Middle Eastern literature is given its due ala Warner Brothers. Using the dowsing sticks to find water and shoring up a newly made well is muscled fun and gratifying to watch and ties in with a beautiful watery escape later in the film.

After a rough start,the film hooks us up with Conner’s pilgrimage to return his sons to their Australian homeland and bury them near their mother.Conner believes all three of his soldier sons ( Arthur, Henry, and Edward ) were killed on the same day, August 7th, 1915. After his grief stricken wife drowns herself, Conner shovels dirt on her grave and promises,” I’ll find them love,and bring them back to you.”

By using a son’s returned diary, Conner travels to Istanbul. Amidst a maze of fezzes and alleyways,through baazaars and mosques, we are initiated into a culture where the beautiful Ayshe (Olga Kurylenko) is met. There is a lovely shot where her shadow -tears show her widow’s pain. She measures a man by how much he loves his children. She is abused by her brother-in-law who wishes to take her as a second wife and visit her every third night. We see her doting on her ten-year-old son,reading coffee grounds,preparing meals,beating rugs,caring for an aging father,dancing and enjoying music,and keeping twenty paces behind Conner so that perhaps there will be no shame. As their shared belief that “Hope is always a necessity” strenghtens their physical attraction,the situation changes when Conner tries to intervene on her behalf and is set up for an honor killing.Ayshe fearing for him screams,”This is not your world. Go home,Mr. Conner. ”

After he gives her son his copy of “The Arabian Nights”, she helps him escape over rooftops and into the caves of Turkish Nationals who allow him to follow them to the restricted battlefields in search of his sons. The British have thwarted his efforts,but the Persian curse, “May you outlive your children” is deeply understood by the Turkish major. It is from the wise major that we hear,”you invaded us”,and the divisions you drew up will keep the “factions constantly at war.”

The one-hundred year anniversary of the battle at Gallipoli calls for a little research,at least more than is given in the film’s few framed texts. ANZACS ( an acroymn for the New Zealand and Australian Army Corp) and part of the larger British Forces wished to control the Dardenelles so that shipping lanes could be unlocked and Russian wheat and Allie supplies could flow. In 1911, Russian wheat exports constituted thirty-seven per cent of World market.

Still, “The Water Diviner” tries to do too much for one film. It is like the director Crowe wishes us to “climb onto the magic carpet” and let him be savior-sultan-mate for three hours.

I have not even mentioned the shell-shocked,church icon-painter and whirling dervish. Or the funny lines when Connor berates the Turks for their lack of record keeping.The response being, “We are Ottomen, not German!” Or the thirty-one cemeteries where Turkish and British bones were attempted to be separated out. Or the institutional church which tries to punish by with-holding burial in consecrated ground,and is smacked with the rhetorical question,”How much blood do you need for it ( ground) to be holy?!”

I feel the question for this film may be similar. “How much ground do you need to cover to show that to recover from war grief and war guilt  one needs action ?”

“Clouds of Sils Maria”

Olivier Assayas’s film “Clouds of Maria’s Sils” is a slow, layered meditation on living life in the moment, without discounting the past or the future. At times it is like watching sand filter through an hourglass, rushed yet somehow wasted. Time is the centering theme and the clouds’ movements life’s metaphor. Sils Maria is a place name. High in the Swiss Alps southeast of Switzerland, .it becomes a retreat for the famous actress Maria Enders (Juliette Binoche). Binoche, always a favorite of mine, is easy to identify with as she prepares to give homage to her first director at a Zurich award ceremony. The seventy-one year old Wilhelm Melchior commits suicide before the tribute can be given. The first layer of sand is sprinkled. Life is short, personal and mysterious.

This is a film for people who want to discuss film as a life-recording vehicle akin to the novel. Images will not be forgotten. We begin with a dark, shaking train ride where all are on cell phones. We meet Maria’s personal assistant,easily played by Kristen Stewart,and learn that Maria is negotiating the terms of her divorce. Window reflections mirror the transience of relationships while we hear Maria bolstered by “You love him. Words will come. You will be true to him”. The second layer of this story within a story is laid by watching Stewart meet every need and whim of Maria. No fruit basket, no tv, less Internet, less regret, more nature, exercise and line practices. We learn how much Maria is invested in her career and how seriously she inhabits her characters. M. Enders at the close of her career is not ready to end anything.

The clouds bring sadness, but joy, too. And no one can light up the screen with their laughter like Binoche. We see her skinny dipping and cavorting in unctuous praise. We see her enjoying a warm sun nap on a cliff’s edge, and we see her scream “I can not accept it” with equal relish. This women knows how to live in the moment. I strongly imagine Binoche does,too. She is just so good at being present. She fills the screen.

Part Two introduces us to the Maloja Snake. I thought this cloud formation more resembled a dragon as it moves and encompasses every craggy crevice of the river valley below. It is a perfect metaphor for time’s passage. Much more beautiful than the fragile, contained hourglass.

After her tribute, Maria is asked to play the part of Helen, an older lesbian who commits suicide when she is left by her young lover, Sybil. At eighteen, Maria starred as Sybil, and Maria is not keen about changing places as the less free-spirited woman. The role scares her. She is superstitious. The last “Helen” died in an accident. We know that the youth culture will still see Sybil as the brightest role. Older woman falling for scheming girl reprised may wound Maria’s spirit.

Claus,bthe director of the bleak play “Maloja Snake” has changed the play’s ending. Maria does not read the last three pages, and we surmise that there will be no suicide. We end with a fade out of Maria in London on stage looking every bit the corporate controller. She will age gracefully and powerfully.

All the cast members are good, but Binoche still shines the brightest. Chloe Grace Moretz as the new Sybil is a starlet one loves to hate. Scandalous and dismissive of everyone ,Moretz would be over the top if it were not for the tabloids
we know so well. Kristen Stewart won the Cesar Award for her assistant performance as Valentine. She plays an intelligent foil to Maria. She exits when she feels her views are discounted. She is replaced as easily as the Maloja Snake fills the gaps. A lesson for us all.

“Clouds of Sils Maria” will stay with you long after you leave the theatre. The five bars of Handel serve as the “om” that will focus your meditation on acting and on life, on what is fiction and what is truth.