Mildly Angry Max

Mad Max: Fury RoadThe latest Mad Max movie isn’t so much about Max as it is about the political-feminist message of the film. Max himself seems somewhat perturbed, sometimes cross, but not really mad in the sense of going berserk. Mildly angry most of the time. Grumpy Max.

Not like the original, fast-quipping, fast-shooting, troubled character played by Mel Gibson in the B-flick that went viral back in the late 1970s. The new Max is more phlegmatic. And not nearly as good a shot. Despite some great effects and photography, Mad Max: Fury Road doesn’t hold a candle to the originals, mostly because of the thin characters.

Well, Mel Gibson is too old to reprise the role, and his subsequent anti-Semitic outbursts and rabid, fundamentalist Christianity have put him into the “no-film” zone for Hollywood these days. Or at least relegating him to modest roles in films of great mediocrity. But as the original Max, he was pretty damned good in the first three films of the franchise.

Mad Max was a story about a loner trying to survive in a dystopian, post-apocalyptic world. Sort of like the Conan series of films, set a few millennia in the future, with guns instead of swords. It was a wild, exciting, scary place.

The new Mad Max is set in an even harsher version of that world, but one that begs more explanation. And the plot is thinner than a corn tortilla.

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Cowboy Noir

John Wayne

I hadn’t previously considered western movies as film noir – I always thought of them as crime dramas – until I watched The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance over the holidays, perhaps my third viewing of the 1962 movie. The gloomy shadows, the dark sets, the agony of the characters. And then it struck me: cowboy noir.

But why not? Noir is, after all not a theme as much as an atmosphere. As one reviewer of cowboy noir put it,

Noir is like a disease. Its symptoms are moodiness, despair, guilt, and paranoia… The tropes of the Western—sunlight, open spaces, nature—would seem to immune to the noir disease. But make no mistake, the Western caught the disease. A genre that seemed to be the quintessence of American optimism, a genre that seemed to embody the notion of moral clarity, slowly gave way to darker themes and more neurotic characters.

Yet among his eight films chosen, TMWSLV isn’t to be found. In one IMDB list of 100 western noir films, it squeaks in at number 99. In this one and this one, it doesn’t even rate a listing.

Imogen Sara Smith, writing in Bright Lights film journal, 2009, noted,

…westerns have always encompassed more complexity than the simplistic “oaters” made for children’s matinees,2 and after World War II some westerns took on a new tone, borrowing the themes, plots and look of film noir.

For me, it’s a classic, close the being the classic, western and certainly I think John Ford’s best western. Others differ (The Guardian, for example, doesn’t include it in its list of top Western films). Some dismiss it as a failed attempt. Me, I enjoyed it more this time around than any viewing in the past.

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The Last Case of Sherlock Holmes

Sherlock Holmes. Iconic detective, 93 years old. Tending his bees in bucolic self-exile near the Dover coast. Mycroft gone. Watson gone. Mrs. Hudson gone. Even the band of villains and criminals who made him who he was are gone. All he has left are his memories and his bees. And his memories are failing.

It’s 1947 and the countryside still bears the visible scars of the recent war. Holmes (Ian McKellen) has just returned from a trip to Japan to see a mysterious contact who promises a rare, native plant will help him with his senility. In England, Holmes raises bees to harvest the royal jelly, then touted as a miracle cure, but so far it hasn’t worked. He travels to the far side of the planet to find another cure, but instead is confronted again with his past. A past he cannot clearly recall.

Holmes returns from Japan to tackle his final case: wresting the truth of his last case from the vault of his own brain. It’s a story made famous through Watson’s tale, itself turned into a popular movie in the 1930s (and you get a brief view of that film, with Holmes in the audience smiling wryly at his fictional self onscreen…. the fictional character watching another fictionalization).

This isn’t a film about a new case, or even about an old case with new evidence. It’s about Holmes trying to tell the truth about a case long since solved and almost forgotten. To tell the truth about a case that touched his heart, not just his brain.

Tell it to whom? To himself.

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The Signal

The SignalOne of the oddest – but most intriguing – scifi films I’ve seen recently was the 2014 movie, the Signal. It is a small-budget film that premiered at the Sundance Festival last year and seems to have gone to DVD soon after. I picked up a copy recently at a nearby HMV and watched it over the weekend.

It stars Laurence Fishburne as the only big-name actor, while the main role is played by newcomer Brenton Thwaites.

The film reminded me somewhat of George Lucas’s first big film, THX-1138, in its minimalist production and sets. But they’re not otherwise alike. THX-1138 was overwhelmingly white: in The Signal the sets are dingy, drab and dreary.

It also uses some of the shaky-cam techniques that made Blair Witch Project standout but has been overused ever since. But not enough to make my eyes hurt and head ache, and reach for the remote to turn it off.

The movie takes three young university students on a cross-country journey during which you learn they were accused of hacking a university server, but apparently cleared somewhat. As they drive through the American southwest, they decide to chase down the hacker who was really behind the attack, using the IP of a message to locate him/her.

All of which takes some time. Probably half the film is a road trip/coming of age movie in which the backstory slowly emerges and the characters are gradually developed. There are some technical elements thrown in to remind viewers there is some science in here, however thin.

I was almost tempted to turn it off and watch something else, something more exciting, but the DVD case had a photo of Fishburne in a biohazard suit, so I knew there was more to come.

When it does arrive, it’s a strange blend of Kafka, THX-1138, ET, The Shining, and other popular cultural and literary themes. I won’t spoil the movie, except to say that it isn’t ever really clear for most of the remainder what is going on. In fact, until the final scene you never quite get the point. It keeps throwing hints at you that never quite stick and make you wonder more.

I can’t get it through my head that it’s supposed to be a metaphor for love and emotion as it is claimed to be. When I think of that notion in scifi, I think of Spock and Kirk. But it does explain why the director put so much vacillating about love and feeling, especially in the first half. There’s some love-redemption going on, sure, but it didn’t strike me as the foremost theme.

Stay with it. It’s not the best scifi film I’ve seen, nor the most well-constructed story and the pacing is too slow at the start. Still, it redeems itself towards the end with some action, suspense and surprises. And like I said, it makes you think.

My final comment is that the last shot, that final glimpse that explains it all, is too fleeting. It should last another minute or so, just enough for the audience to take in the whole picture.

Ex Machina

Ex MachinaEx Machina – “from the machine” – is a British film that is more about philosophy and morality than science. It opens a can or worms, philosophically, that underscores issues now being raised by advancing and increasingly intelligent technology. Its spare but crisp production reminds me of George Lucas’s first film, THX-1138.

Spoiler alert, by the way…

It is, in its essence, a modern exploration of the themes presented in Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel, Frankenstein, using artificial intelligence as the  fulcrum, rather than the reanimating of dead tissue.

The film poses questions that are current in all AI research, but are also important on the larger ethical scale about how we treat intelligence outside our own, robots in this case being metaphors for companion and food animals:

  • How do we define sentience?
  • How do we recognize sentience in others?
  • How do we treat sentience?
  • Is there a separate morality and behaviour for our interaction with non-human intelligence?

None of these are answered in the film, although the quest for the answers is part of the plot (which is also part-thriller). And lingering over all of it is the Turing Test: is it real sentience or simply the illusion of it? And how can we tell the difference?

It also suggests the question of what exactly emotions are:

  • Can emotions be programmed?
  • Are emotions predictable and quantifiable?
  • Can a machine experience emotions?

Then there are the questions about gender and sexuality:

  • Is gender programmable?
  • Does sexuality reside in the intellect or the physical appearance? or both?
  • What attracts men and women?

The film also poses the question that is paramount in Frankenstein:

  • Is the human creation of an intelligence moral or ethical? Can it ever be?
  • What treatment or response does the creation deserve?

And as a sub-theme, the film throws in the morality of slavery and male domination: earlier models of robot appear to be kept as sex slaves by their designer (particularly Kyoko, the assistant and cook, who is revealed to be a robot only half-way through the film – and is perhaps more enigmatic and interesting than Ava, the lead character).

Are these merely sexbots: tools and devices for use, or are they sentient beings? Plus, the main robot, Ava, has evident and expressive sexuality. Is it real/authentic (i.e. a native response) or simply programmed? Are the males  – who both play a dominant role – sexist or sympathetic in their responses to the female robots?

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