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Column Fri May 15 2015

Mad Max: Fury Road, Pitch Perfect 2, Lambert and Stamp, Iris, I Am Big Bird, Metalhead & The Film Critic

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Mad Max: Fury Road

It wouldn't surprise me in the slightest if we find out one day that writer-director George Miller contemplated, at some point in the early stages of developing what became Mad Max: Fury Road, setting the film in the world established in Mad Max, The Road Warrior and Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome but taking Max Rockatansky (originally played iconically by Mel Gibson) out of the film entirely. After watching Fury Road, it's not difficult to imagine a version of the film without him, or a version of the story in which he dies halfway through, leaving the true star of the film, Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron), at the true and proper center of things.

In truth, former police officer Max was never the most interesting character in any of the Mad Max movies. He was the relatively stable center of these stories, around which various versions of insanity and eccentricity revolved. Even his vehicles of choice were classic cars with very little external flair. With Fury Road, Miller attempts to push Max (perhaps a little too hard) into the realm of the tormented, filling his mind and eyes with flashes of those he loved but couldn't save from death, primarily his wife and child from the first film. These visions haunt and distract him at crucial times during the Fury Road tale, but these moments seem like desperate attempts to give Max (played here by Tom Hardy) depth, which has never been particularly important before and adds very little to the mix.

The possible explanation for this tortured-soul emphasis is that Max doesn't seem nearly as interesting this time out, especially when placed next to Theron's Furiosa, who actually has a horse in the race she's trying to win. Furiosa is a war-rig driver for a territorial dictator named Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Bryen, who played the nasty piece of work Toecutter in Mad Max), who controls the water supply in this small, burnt-out corner of Australia. On a water run from Joe's fortress to the oil refinery nearby, Furiosa commits mutiny and diverts her fortified truck off course in an attempt to steal its actual cargo: Joe's fertile wives (including the likes of Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, Zoë Kravitz and Riley Keough), essentially the only women left on a poisoned planet who can still have children. In this society, it isn't water or gasoline that has become most precious; it's the ability to breed that gives someone the most power in a dying world.

Although we aren't provided a proper backstory on Furiosa, that makes her far more interesting. Assuming she's barren, she's been stripped of conventional feminine tropes. She's a warrior in Joe's army and little else. But she is appalled seeing these wives being used as baby factories, and she knows there's a better place in the world for them (she refers to it as the "Green Place," although green is not a color we see in this film). Theron does fiery quite convincingly here, but she's far more intriguing when she's quiet and plotting her next eight moves.

Perhaps most importantly and impressively, Furiosa is the star of this film, with Max as her constant companion (although thankfully, Miller ignores any romantic possibilities between the two), despite a rough start between them. She's fighting for the future of women in this social structure, and her mission carries far more weight than Max's trumped-up internal angst. And Mad Max: Fury Road is a far better film because of that. If you love great filmmaking, you'll be in heaven for two hours. If you are upset that said filmmaking isn't solely centered on a male character, feel free to eat a dick.

So why am I focusing on the socio-political aspects of Fury Road instead of the action? Aw hell, you know the action is going to great. Miller has been making these things for decades, and while he's hardly resting on his laurels or sleepwalking through the action sequences, we know he's going to get those elements just right. If anything, the director has outdone himself as a stager of mayhem and destruction. Everything feels faster, looks like it hurts more, and makes louder noises when things go boom. Shot mostly on the southwestern coast of Africa, even the desert looks more evil. Rather than the washed-out tan color from the previous films, here the sands look positively scorching, as if even stepping on it would melt your feet. There's even an amusing sequence in which the various characters must deal with muddy bogs, and suddenly those 10-ton trucks don't seem like such a good idea. The terrain is as much, if not more of, a character as it has even been in these films.

One of the film's more interesting subplots involves a low-level follower of Joe named Nux (Nicholas Hoult), a dried-out husk of a man, clearly diseased by whatever caused the end of civilization ("Who Killed the Earth?" is a frequent battle cry in Fury Road); and he's of a firm belief that if he dies he'll find paradise in Valhalla and eventually be reborn. He literally steals Max's blood in his attempt to strengthen himself enough to chase after Furiosa, but he eventually begins to see the error of his ways and becomes a reliable ally. Nux is maybe the only character in Fury Road who has an arc, powered in part by his attraction to one of Joe's wives, and Hoult (from the current X-Men movies and Warm Bodies) does a remarkable job of conveying his character's fanatical mindset along with his slow transformation into something closer to human.

Despite the fact that Miller hasn't visited the Mad Max realm in 30 years, Fury Road doesn't feel like he's treading tired ground. He's clearly decided to up both the action and the human stakes with this film. He's quite gifted at digging through the wreckage and rubble he creates to find the heart and soul of his characters; it's one of his absolute strengths. And I don't think we've seen him pull it off quite as bravely and significantly as he does here. It's a little sad that Hardy's Max is reduced to little more than a grunting, screaming mess for a great deal of the film, but Max was never one for many words. But what Gibson could pull off with a cold stare, Hardy feels the need to overcompensate with a twitchy performance that makes Max seem brain damaged, rather than the king of the brooders. It's a minor complaint, but you'll notice it and feel the difference.

Let me be the guy who splashes a little cold water on some of the hyperbole that's already been gaining steam about Fury Road. First of all, it is not a two-hour chase scene — not even close. There are plenty of breaks in the action, as you probably need just to catch your breath and figure out what the hell is going on. But it's more than just about taking a moment to decompress. Miller's pacing is remarkable, and what happens during these pauses in the action are important to the bigger picture and messages of the film. When Furiosa and her crew get where they're going, it opens up the truer meanings of Fury Road in remarkable ways.

The other myth I want to dispel is that there is no CGI in Fury Road. That's just not true. I might be convinced that the car stunts are all 100 percent real, but the idea that CGI isn't a major part of the storytelling here is just nonsense. The difference is that Miller doesn't use special effects as a crutch to support a weak film. He uses it to convey scale and enormity; he's expanding his world not creating it. I'm certainly not against filmmakers using a whole lot of CGI, but let's not turn Miller into some kind of anti-CGI warrior. That said, the practical stunts in Fury Road are like nothing you've ever seen, both as pure cinematic violence eruptions and from a purely technical standpoint. Miller has turned car crashes, people getting sucked under the wheels of a semi, and fiery explosions into works of art that will stand up against anything hanging in The Louvre. Yeah, I said it. Now go have yourself a destructive good time.

Pitch Perfect 2

I couldn't remember what my initial review was for the first Pitch Perfect, so I did a quick search and discovered that somehow (probably because I didn't see the film until after its release) I never actually reviewed the original. If nearly three years of hard living hasn't destroyed my recall, I seem to remember reacting favorably to the story of Beca (Anna Kendrick) and her college pals, singing a cappella mash-ups as the Bellas and winning a national championship. The film did well in theaters and really well on home video, and then Pitch Perfect became a "thing," which isn't the fault of the film, but sometimes when people try to make another version of that "thing," it turns out more like a pale imitation.

Pitch Perfect 2 starts strong, with a very clever command performance by the now-three-time national champion Bellas at Lincoln Center for President Obama and the First Lady. Back are all of the members who weren't seniors in the first film, including Fat Amy (Rebel Wilson), who attempts a silk scarf routine that results in her tights splitting, exposing her front and back nether regions to the First Family and disqualifying the team from any official U.S. competitions. However, it just so happens the tri-annual world finals are happening soon in Europe, and the Bellas are automatically invited to that. The team makes a deal with the a cappella governing body (made up of first-film commentators John Michael Higgins and Elizabeth Banks, who also takes a turn as the film's director this time around) that if they win, they will be allowed back into competition.

Despite the return of screenwriter Kay Cannon, the tone of Pitch Perfect 2 feel similar to the first film but perhaps a little meaner. With most of the girls playing seniors in this installment, there's more at stake for many of them and more of an incentive to win the international title. But many of the obstacles thrown in front of the young ladies seem hopelessly artificial, and the subplots are loaded with drama that seems forced. For example, Beca gets an internship at a recording studio run by a hits producer played by Keegan-Michael Key, who is quite funny. (But can we all just agree that Snoop Dogg cameos feel about as timely as Nixon jokes?) But Beca is afraid her friends will freak if they find out that she's concentrating on a career in her chosen field rather than preparing the music for their title shot. Her avoidance feels more like a plot device than an actual personality trait.

Thrown into the mix for the first time in this sequel is freshman Emily (Hailee Steinfeld from True Grit and Ender's Game). Although the Bellas are forbidden from auditioning any new members, Emily is a legacy (her mother, played by Katey Sagal, was a Bella many moons ago) and must be allowed in automatically. But she's a bundle of nervous energy that also threatens to sideline the group. Emily also has ambitions of writing and performing original music, which is the kiss of death in this profession of covers and mash-ups.

The group's other key member is Gail (Brittany Snow), who is largely made uninteresting in Pitch Perfect 2. We know she wants to win really bad, but beyond that I couldn't tell you a single thing that resembles growth about this character. A parade of familiar faces manage to make their way back into the film. Even long-graduated Aubrey (Anna Camp) manages to find a clever way to re-enter the Bellas' lives one more time. Boyfriends are had and lost and gotten back. Cameos abound, with my personal favorites being another vocal group, the Tone Hangers, comprised of John Hodgman, Jason Jones, Joe Lo Truglio and Reggie Watts, who compete against the Bellas at a secret a cappella showdown sponsored by David Cross' demented host. It's at this event that we first see the talents of the German champions Das Sound Machine, led by the genetically perfect Birgitte Hjort and Flula Borg.

I guess the issues I have with Pitch Perfect 2 have mostly to do with everything being stretched too far. There are too many stories, characters (new and old), and subplots to allow us to care about any of it. The zingers still zing, and the characters who were funny before largely hold onto their comic timing (I still find myself weirdly excited by Hana Mae Lee's bizarre, soft-spoken Lilly). But overall, this feels like a giant one-joke idea that is being grabbed at the corners and stretched beyond its natural borders.

Still, most things with Kendrick in them are better than the ones without, and she continues to impress me not just with her comic ability but her intuition about what style of comedy works best in each film she's in. She is no one-note comic actor, and she proves that with each new film. Pitch Perfect 2 is a close call for me, but I don't think it quite made me laugh or tap my toes enough to recommend. I realize that straying too far from the formula of the first film would have been sacrilege, but give us something to make it less predictable at least.

Lambert and Stamp

This year is shaping up to be another great year for documentaries, particularly if you're a fan of docs about the arts and individual creative types (I review three of them just this week). Lambert and Stamp has its origins in a particularly unusual place. Would-be filmmakers Chris Stamp (brother of actor Terence) and Kit Lambert were keen to find an unknown band to place at the center of an experimental film circa the early 1960s. The pair found a group called High Numbers, and they were so impressed with their music that they decided to manage and mentor the band that eventually changed its name to The Who.

First-time feature director James D. Cooper has taken that early footage (and a great deal of other archival film) and made this film that tracks the choices and decision the management team made to make The Who one of the world's biggest and most enduring bands. What immediately becomes clear is that Stamp and Lambert were cut from quite different cloth. One was more buttoned down, while the other seemed more attuned to the needs of the band and all that came with being rock stars. But together, they made the perfect managing duo, always leaving the band room to expand and try new things, including seeing songwriter Pete Townshend's need to move beyond conventional rock music, a desire that led to the rock opera Tommy. Both Townshend and singer Roger Daltrey are extensively interviewed for the film, and paint a fairly clear portrait of how their management allowed them to grow artistically.

As much as Lambert and Stamp is a fascinating look at The Who's early successes (something I think even non-fans will find amusing) as well as a spotlight on the rollicking London music and fashion scenes of the 1960s, where the film ultimately triumphs is in its look at this unlikeliest of friendships, one of whom was gay, while the other rarely liked a day where he didn't have a lady on his arm. With Lambert having died in 1981, his voice is missing from the film, but the more recently passed Stamp (he died in 2012) is very much a part of this film, spinning quality stories that are both hilarious and quite telling about both his management style and The Who's tastes and musical leanings.

Things started to go sour when the band and management attempted to make Tommy into a film (the original version didn't happen), which the amateur filmmakers assumed they would direct after solving some of the story issues of the album turning into a cinema experience. The conflicts within the organization are as fascinating as the years when things were moving along smoothly. Director Cooper jumps around chronologically in his telling of The Who's legend, but the portrait painted of Keith Moon as a master antagonizer, especially when it came to Daltrey, are pure gold as rock lore goes. Lambert and Stamp clocks in at just under two hours, but it breezes by with a kind of loopy glee and flying-by-the-seat-of-their-pants energy of two guys making it up as they went along, and usually getting it right. As a slice of rock history, the film works; but as an examination of a creative friendship, it excels. The film opens today in Chicago at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

Iris

On the surface, the latest (though not last) documentary from master filmmaker Albert Maysles (Salesman, Gimme Shelter, Grey Gardens), who died in March at age 88, is about 93-year-old fashion icon and tastemaker Iris Apfel, whose ability to combine clothes and accessories from vastly different origins into a unifying look is actually quite fun to observe. But in light of Maysles' recent passing and his voice and face frequently featured in the film, it's equally about people who have made a long and fruitful career in their dream job. Iris is a non-standard profile about an eccentric figure with a low opinion of her looks but a high opinion of her style. At one point in the film, she says, "If you're lucky enough to do something you love, everything else follows." If Maysles had said it, it would have made just as much sense.

Like many of the fashion-centered docs in recent years, Iris doesn't require a knowledge or appreciation of style to enjoy. Iris' outfits for herself may seem outlandish at first, but when she explains her process and illustrates how she puts pieces together, it somehow makes sense, and your opinion of the ensemble will likely improve. It should be made clear that Apfel is not a clothing designer; she's more akin to a stylist, often using herself as the model. A great deal of the film's strength comes from the relationship and frequent reactions of her long-time husband Carl, who is also an occasional male model for her fashion combinations. There's a love story at the heart of her life story and this movie that is adorable and inspirational.

As one might expect, Iris touches on its subject's childhood in Queens during the Great Depression, her relationship with her parents, and her early years experimenting with clothing and colors. And the tour of her lavishly decorated, funhouse of a home is reason enough to pay admission. But it's her occasional interactions with the director that make the film stand out in my mind. I don't get the impression to two are age-old friends, but it's clear they both admire and respect each other as artists, and the affection clearly runs deep. The movie is an accidental, yet perfectly fitting, tribute to Maysles (whose final film, In Transit, has just started making the festival rounds), and it only adds another reason to seek out this skillfully crafted work about a different kind of creator. Iris opens today in Chicago at the Music Box Theatre.

I Am Big Bird: The Caroll Spinney Story

Far from a glossy surface treatment of the man behind one of the most recognizable characters in children's entertainment and pop culture, I Am Big Bird dives deep into the sometimes-troubled life story of Caroll Spinney, who had given movement and voice to Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch since they were introduced on "Sesame Street" in 1969. The film tracks Spinney's early years as a puppeteering enthusiast through a rough childhood with an abusive father to his days with the "Bozo's Circus" show out of Boston and his eventual fateful meeting with Jim Henson, who had a new idea for educating and entertaining children with the Children's Television Workshop.

I Am Big Bird isn't afraid to get deep (Spinney talks openly about times in his life when he had suicidal thoughts) and there may even be a four-letter word thrown in here and there — so by all means, bring the kids — but as an honest and revealing documentary, it's a winner thanks to smart storytelling from directors Dave La Mattina and Chad N. Walker. Fortunately, Spinney and his family chronicled everything with home movies and video cameras, so archival footage is amply available to cover most of the major events in his and Big Bird's life, including his monumental trip to China and various "Sesame Street" episodes that dealt with slightly tougher issues, including the death of a beloved cast member. And good luck trying not to cry your eyes out when Big Bird sings "It's Not Easy Being Green" at Henson's 1990 memorial.

The film makes some interesting observations about Spinney's role in the Muppet world, especially noting that both of his characters were ones that were puppets operated by one person, unlike many of the other characters who required two people to work. According to the movie, this style of worked suited Spinney's quiet, loner personality, but it also kept him from bonding with Henson the way other Muppeteers (like Franz Oz) did over the years. I Am Big Bird is as much a fascinating personality profile as it is a historical document about Spinney, and the way the filmmakers braid the two sides to his story is sublime.

What's also of particular note is how many interview subjects note that there is not much of a dividing line between Big Bird and Spinney in terms of childlike wonder and kindness, which makes the creation and purpose of Oscar the Grouch in Spinney's life so curious. As a being of pure, playful negativity, Oscar lets Spinney purge himself of bad feelings just enough to keep him energized to play Big Bird. We should all have such outlets for our true personalities to come out and play.

I Am Big Bird is a heartwarming — sometimes heartbreaking — story of one of the last of the old guard in children's entertainment. Despite a brief popularity spike by Elmo in recent years, Big Bird remains the face of "Sesame Street," the eternal child in all of us who guided us through learning and just generally being better people. It gives us a sense that Spinney is both close to a time when physical limitation will force him to step out of the Big Bird costume and hand it to his carefully chosen successor, but he still seems to get a charge and sense of pure joy strapping on the legs and easing into the eight-foot-tall suit. When he finally does decide to take off the suit for the last time, this film makes it clear that the world will be a little less perfect as a result. The film opens today in Chicago for a two-week run at the Gene Siskel Film Center.

Metalhead

This very different approach at the coming-of-age story begins when Hera, a little girl growing up on a farm in Iceland, sees her older brother killed in an accident, which occurred partly because she was distracting him. It's an incident neither she nor her parents (who don't know about her involvement) ever truly recover from, and as she gets older she begins to take an interest in her brother's heavy metal music collection and even his guitars, which she tentatively picks up and learns to play. Before long, Hera (played in her early 20s by the terrific Thora Bjorg Helga) loses herself in the music, listening and absorbing it completely, causing a rift between her and her parents.

She also uses this feeling of alienation to distance herself from her community, and she begins to lash out and commit random acts of destruction and vandalism, often with headphones on, blasting mix tapes of Judas Priest, Iron Maiden, Megadeth, Lizzy Borden, Savatage and many others. Just when she's convinced there is no one in the world that understands her love of this music, she meets the town's new young priest, who reveals that he too is a secret headbanger. There are a few more dangerous moments when Hera is feeling especially destructive that she turns to black metal and church burning as a way of getting back at God for taking her brother away from her. And while Metalhead never justifies her actions, it does view them as an extreme form of grieving and outward expression of rage at an unfair world.

Hera's sometimes unexpected story takes her from forming a crush on the priest to dating her clean-cut, high school sweetheart to learning to write and play her own music in her room (a tape of her demos leads to a great many surprises in the film) to playing her first concert in front of a skeptical crowd of locals. Director Ragnar Bragason does a remarkable job tracing this young woman's painful journey and rebirth into the person she was always meant to be.

Metalhead drifts effortlessly from tragic to darkly funny to uplifting, with a few sidebars into the downright terrifying. And the soundtrack of deep-cut metal classics is beautifully curated. This may be one of the films that, on the surface, you may not think is your glass of Brennivín, but I think most people will find something here to latch onto and go along for this powerful ride. The film opens today in Chicago for a weeklong run at Facets Cinémathèque.

The Film Critic

With a small amount of experience as a film critic, I've noticed that when they're portrayed on film or television, there's certainly a stereotype. And the portrait of Victor Tellez (Rafael Spregelburd), a veteran Buenos Aires critic who has become the hopeless cynic of his small group of critic pals, isn't much of an improvement on this age-old type. He's slightly frumpy, with an apartment full of film-related books; he wears a professorial corduroy jacket, sports a greying beard and glasses. Naturally, he lives alone but has a broken relationship with a woman who might qualify as his part-time girlfriend.

So it's no surprise that when Sofia (the lovely Dolores Fonzi) enters his world, his life of going from screening to screening searching for a version of filmic perfection that he will never find, he suddenly opens himself up to the idea that he could live a happier, more well-rounded life. What's most amusing about The Film Critic (or El Critico), from first-time director Hernan Gerschuny, is how much Victor resists his life turning into a romantic comedy. Sofia is like a raven-haired Meg Ryan, and Victor responds to her almost in spite of himself. She's unpredictable, spontaneous and full of life — all of the things Victor is not. He hears swelling music when they kiss, and he actually contemplates the very real possibility of writing a romantic comedy screenplay for his brother-in-law. Even worse, he starts to allow sappy romance movies to get to him during screenings, something his fellow critics openly mock him for.

A Jury Award-Best Feature winner at the 2013 Sao Paulo International Film Festival, The Film Critic is a minor work that finds moments to soar when it finds itself caving to the tropes of Hollywood comedies, only to be ripped back from the brink by Victor's world-weary doubts that any of those clichés are possible. Fonzi is the real discovery here; I don't believe I've ever seen her in any Argentine films I've seen over the years, but I'll certainly seek her out. Sofia embodies the mysterious, secretive manic pixie dream girl type, who is very aware that Victor will respond to such a woman in a very particular, favorable way. The film may get a bit too meta for some on endure, but I thought its dissection of the romantic comedy genre was right on the money. The film opens today in Chicago at the Music Box Theatre.

 
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Architecture Tue Nov 03 2015

Paul Goldberger Describes the "Pragmatism and Poetry" of Frank Gehry's Architecture in His New Book

By Nancy Bishop

Architecture critic Paul Goldberger talks about Frank Gehry's life and work in a new book.
Read this feature »

Steve at the Movies Fri Jan 01 2016

Best Feature Films & Documentaries of 2015

By Steve Prokopy

Read this column »

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