Review the Old School: Kingdom of Heaven (2005)

Let me be absolutely clear about something right from the beginning. My most recent viewing was of the Director’s Cut. The glorious, three-hour-long Director’s Cut. Did this make a difference? No clue, I watched the original cut way back when it came out and I wasn’t about to rewatch the same movie just to find out what parts they cut out. I’m not that masochistic. I have a job. And other shit to write. Moving on.

Directed by Ridley Scott and released all the way back in 2005, Kingdom of Heaven stars Orlando Bloom as Balian (later de Ibelin), the blacksmith for a Lord in France who finds out he’s the bastard son of a well-regarded Crusader recently back from the Holy Land, Godfrey de Ibelin played by Liam Neeson, shortly after his child dies and his wife tops herself out of grief. At first seemingly angry that Liam Neeson is his father (God knows why), Balian soon decides to join dad in the family business of killing the enemies of the leper King of Jerusalem (voiced by Edward Norton). Him killing his half-brother priest may or may not have helped in the decision making. Dad doesn’t make it past Italy, unfortunately, but makes sure to make Balian his heir and a knight before carking it. Balian gets to the Holy Land, hijinks ensue. These included Balian bedding the King’s married sister Sibylla (played by Eva Green), sparing and impressing a Saracen Cavalier (played by Alexander Siddig), killing a decent number of Christians and Muslims, building a few wells and, of course, taking command of the defence of Jerusalem against Saladin’s overwhelming forces after the new King of Jerusalem (spoiler, Edward Norton dies) starts a war then promptly loses it, all while learning the true meaning of knighthood. Good times.

This is a good movie, but it’s far from a perfect one. Orlando Bloom plays the role surprisingly well. There were one or two moments where I felt he was channeling Legolas or Will Turner, but I’d blame some awkward and clumsy moments in the script more than anything (a moment before the final battle when he’s giving everyone a pep-talk stands out). His character was a little too perfect though. It was lampshaded at the beginning of the film that he’d fought for lords before joining his dad on horseback and in the engineers, had participated in the building of powerful siege weapons, but we see him the movie as one of the best fighters, a skilled tactician and an expert in irrigating deserts. I mean, is there anything this guy isn’t good at? Similarly the villains are cartoonishly bad. Or specifically Guy de Lusignan played by Marton Csokas, the man who would be king and fuck everything up. Don’t get me wrong, Csokas plays the role well enough, but he’s just such a fucking stereotype with no motivation beyond “I’m gonna start a war and kill me some Saracens.” This worked with Brendan Gleeson’s character, Reynald de Chatillon, the insane commander of the Knights Templar, but he’s played as the mad attack dog whose entire purpose is cutting down people who don’t deserve it for his twisted faith. Guy is supposed to be the one who stands to gain the most and lose the most, but we see no reason for him to be such an arsehole. He doesn’t seem to want to conquer, doesn’t seem to give any shits about the faith or crusades beyond providing him with support or troops. There’s some vague hope for winning glory on the battlefield, I guess, but it just seems shallow. Maybe I’m not reading enough into the character, but it seemed like he was acting the arsehole simply for the sake of being an arsehole who we can blame him when the Kingdom of Heaven all goes to hell, and the audience can say, “See? Should have listened to Balian.”

The direction is mostly good, Ridley Scott knows how to cut together an epic and visceral battle, the combat is clear, bloody and wider shots are used to great effect. Smaller skirmishes meanwhile are lonelier, more intimate affairs, but their setups (long shot of a single knight at an oasis) reminded me of showdowns in old westerns. There were a few moments where the editing made me cringe. One in particular, where Balian first meets the king of Jerusalem seemed badly and unnecessarily cut together. They start out talking over a chessboard then are suddenly looking at plans for a fort, which Balian gives his advice on, then awkwardly shifts to the king with him. It’s meant to feel like a long conversation but instead just feels like they decided to skip half a sentence. It’s weird and unnecessary. But not common. As for the music, well, the only time I really noticed it was during the big battles when I realised it was the same theme from The Mummy. Take that as you will.

Regardless, the cast is stellar. And I mean, really fantastic, putting excellent actors in even minor roles. Liam Neeson has a major role but doesn’t make it through a third of the film, Kevin McKidd has about three minutes of screentime before being killed off and is billed only as “English Sergeant” and Michael Sheen plays the priest I mentioned above. The one who gets stabbed by Balian not even ten minutes in. A special mention should go to The Hospitaller, played by David Thewlis. While remaining nameless, The Hospitaller actually manages to survive most of the film and plays a sort of mentor and father to Balian. He’s a man of faith if not religion, and acts as conscience for Balian in his harder moments with good humour and sincere kindness.

But the characters I really wanted to see more of were the Muslims. I remember when I first watched this not long after it came out for the first time on DVD feeling that the Muslims were treated unfairly, and they may have been. But rewatching it, I felt like this was one of the best possible portrayals of an Arab conquering Christians that we could’ve gotten out of 2005. The Christian folk who want peace always remark that it requires both the King of Jerusalem and Saladin to maintain the peace. Firuz, his retainer spared by Balian in the beginning of the film, is a good man and remarks that it was because Saladin was his teacher. Saladin, played excellently by Ghassan Massoud, does a solid job as the stoic general, who doesn’t really want to go through the trouble of taking Jerusalem but has his own fanatics to deal with. He shows disappointment when he meets a captured Guy, and good humour after treating with a worthy opponent. Not a perfect portrayal, but two years into the Iraq War and four years after 9/11 from an American director? Not bad. Not bad at all, and I wish we saw more of it.

Strange to think that this was directed by the same guy who’s now in so much trouble over fucking Exodus: Gods and Kings. What happened Ridley? You used to be cool.

Reviewing the old school: The Mummy (1999)

The first of two ‘Reviewing the old school’ posts this week, since I skipped the one before New Year.

One of the first questions that occurred to me when I sat down to write this was “do they make movies like this anymore?” Short answer is “yes” with a “but.” Long answer is the same except with a more drawn out “but.” Like a “but” that takes seven syllables to say.

I watched this movie so many times when I was a kid, alongside its sequel The Mummy Returns (which will eventually get its own review). For good reason. It’s an incredibly fun film and at the time I was too young to be concerned with little things like “cultural appropriation” and “white-washed casts” (now I’m too nostalgic to be overly concerned, if I’m being honest, and this film isn’t even close to the worst example. It is an example though, and that is always worth a mention). The story is largely what you’d expect it to be. High Priest has sex with Pharaoh’s mistress. High Priest murders Pharaoh. High Priest is turned into mummy. Three thousand years later he’s accidently brought back to life by a librarian, her brother and bodyguard/guide. He then proceeds to eat a bunch of cowboys, ’cause a half-dozen or so of the ten plagues of Egypt and kidnap the Librarian to bring back his dead girlfriend (the above mentioned Pharaoh’s mistress). Hijinks ensue.

The CGI and special effects hold up remarkably well considering that the age of the film. Most of the time when we actually see the titular mummy it’s at night, in the dark, hiding the worst of it. The instances where the mummy sucks out the cowboys soul juices occur off screen. We see the shadow against the wall, zoom in on a minions cringing face, hear a scream and the mummy’s roar, then get to see the practical effects results. Even the larger CGI set-pieces use practical effects and good common sense to great effect. A moment at the end has a computer generated sandstorm chasing a real-life biplane. A fight against the also-mummified priests of Imhotep (the mortal name of the immortal mummy) and reawakened warriors involves plenty of computer-animated characters leaping all over the place and crawling across the ceilings, but also some excellent costuming, simple animatronics and stuntwork. The result is a film that never takes you out of the moment, even at its most glaringly fakest.

What makes this ‘undead-boy meets girl and tries to sacrifice her to ancient gods’ tale so compelling is really the characters. Rachel Weisz is fantastic as Evy, the proud librarian who finds her self-confidence and saves the day at least twice by being the smartest, most educated person in the room. Brendan Fraser plays an excellent world-weary tough-guy in Rick O’Connell, with enough sarcasm to come off as witty but not so much that cynicism becomes his defining trait. John Hannah as Jonathan (Evy’s brother) again plays a well balanced character. As the good guys ongoing comic relief character, he’s a lying, cheating, thieving coward. He’s also loyal, quick-thinking, smart and obviously cares deeply for his sister (needing assurances from O’Connell that they’d rescue a recently captured Evy before escaping from a mob into the sewers). Oded Fehr, despite playing a Berber stereotype, does it with a great deal of gravitas and sincerity (he has a fantastically dramatic voice), but there’s also a moment when he’s strapped to the wing of an airplane grinning like a schoolboy. And you don’t doubt that grin for a moment, you don’t doubt that despite the danger he’s someone doing something incredibly, exhilaratingly novel and enjoying every second of it. On the other side of things Kevin J. O’Connor as the greedy, survive-at-the-expense-of-everyone-around-you Beni is easy enough to dislike, but you still sorta hope he makes it out at the end of the film.

The only character who didn’t work in my opinion was the villain, Imhotep, the titular mummy, played by Arnold Vosloo. I don’t know why. Nothing against Vosloo, he was competent enough, but I just never found him all that intimidating when he was in his human form. Might’ve been because costuming had him running around in just his budgie smugglers and a bathrobe for a lot of it. Hard to take a guy seriously when he looks like he’s just coming back from reading by the hotel pool.

Even the minor characters are great and memorable. The Americans have little to do aside from become fodder for the raging mummy and not a huge amount of screentime, but they’re each distinct and memorable. Erick Avari as Dr. Bey get’s only a few minutes and just a little bit of dialogue, but they’re good minutes and he receives an epic end. Bernard Fox plays an epically named, alcoholic Royal Air Force pilot who goes faces death with a maniacal laugh. Omid Djalili plays one of his more intentionally irritating characters, but doesn’t last long enough in the film to be a mark against it, showing a great deal of restraint by the writers and directors who could very well have decided they needed even more comedy relief. Enough time to be funny, not enough to become baggage.

So yeah, great film. Would recommend you watch.

And on that note, I want to segue back to the question I asked (and answered) at the beginning. Do they still make movies like this anymore? Fun action-adventures driven less by plot than by memorable characters and witty banter. Seems like these films hit their peak at the turn of the century then sorta died out (following a similar trajectory to Jackie Chan’s presence in Western films). But yeah, they do. The Pirates of the Caribbean franchise is still going strong. Thing is, the last PoC was pretty lousy, the next PoC is probably gonna be worse and of the original trilogy it’s only the first that’s really remembered fondly. Keeping with Johnny Depp vehicles, Alice in Wonderland and The Lone Ranger were both pretty terrible in their own ways. Prince of Persia was an attempt that was, ultimately, not memorable at all. A lot of G-rated stuff, I guess, but even then. Seems like a lot of the films that should be taking a similar tone to The Mummy are instead taking themselves way too seriously. And the ones that aren’t are made by people like Adam Sandler.

I guess you could look at the harder stuff. You could make the argument that Quentin Tarantino’s making some great action-adventures with memorable characters and snappy banter, but there’s a whole lot more violence and swearing. I got no fucking problem with that, but I’m disinclined to let kids I’m with watch Django Unchained ’til they’re old enough to understand what ‘revenge fantasy’ means.

Animation still scratches the itch, I guess. And now that I think about it, the superhero films (the MCU ones, not the DC/Warner Bros ones… yet) probably fit the bill pretty well. But still, it’s different. Y’know what? This requires more thought. I think this needs a post all its own. I’ll get back to you.

In the meantime watch The Mummy. It’s a fun film, good action, great characters. An easy way to kill an hour and half.

Dying to discuss: Or why I loved Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Did you know there’s a new Star Wars film in the cinemas right now? Of course you do. Aside from the massive multi-platform advertising campaign that can only be pulled of by a media super-power like Disney, it’s bloody Star Wars, arguably the biggest franchise ever with the kind of pop-culture influence that even a lot of actual wars could never compete with. I went and saw it last Monday. Highly recommend you go see it, even if for no other reason than so I can talk about it without spoiling something. Or everything. ‘Cause I really, really wanna. Talk about it that is, not spoil it. I’m not a bastard. Or am I? Maybe, sometimes.

It’s at this point that I’m gonna mention that I might be talking about events and characters in the film that probably count as spoilers. Nothing major but if you haven’t seen it yet and want to avoid all mention of the film before you do, well, you’ve been warned.

Yeah, so anyway, I get the feeling that this is gonna be one of those films we talk about for a while in a really good way. Y’see everyone who’s seen it agrees that this is a good film, but no one seems to agree on how good it is. A few people were disappointed, a few people were raving. I loved it, but Mad Max: Fury Road still stands as my favourite film of 2015. Thing is, there was a lot to talk about Mad Max as well.

What I mean is that there’s a lot to unpack with this film, a lot more going on than a shallow conversation would at first reveal. An example: one of the complaints I’ve heard is that The Force Awakens is essentially just A New Hope. Like it literally has all the same story beats. I’d argue though that this is a good thing. It keeps the film feeling familiar while the new characters and relationships (I’ve come to realise are actually the most important thing in a Star Wars story) means that it still feels fresh and new. It’s also a demonstration by the directors, writers and producers that they understand what made the original trilogy so great while setting the scene for their own (’cause I expect there will be parallels between Episode VIII and Empire Strikes Back, but I don’t think they’ll be as blatant as this one). Someone else had issue with villain Kylo Ren, that he was less ‘all powerful badarse’ and more ‘tantrum throwing bitch.’ Guy wasn’t a menacing character, especially following in the footsteps of Darth Vader. Meanwhile I think that’s the point. This guy wants to be Darth Vader so badly, but he isn’t and probably never will be. It seems to me that the film-makers themselves are pointing this out. After all, that’s a big fucking helmet to fill. But it’s also them saying that he’s a different villain. Yeah, he’s powerful, merciless, brutal and very, very dangerous, but he’s also morally conflicted and emotionally torn.

This isn’t even getting into theories about who and what are which. I’m of the belief that main character Rey, played fantastically by Daisy Ridley, is a descendant of Obi Wan Kenobi (the only other main character in either trilogy with an English accent, and with Ewan Mcgregor doing a quick bit of voiceover work telling her she’s taken the first few steps towards the Force).

Listen, she's new to the whole "Force" thing. It's a lot to take in all at once.
Listen, she’s new to the whole “Force” thing. It’s a lot to take in all at once.

Shit, there’s stuff to talk about with all the characters. John Boyega as Finn, the Stormtrooper turned hero who may or may not be force sensitive (I don’t reckon he is, but we’ll see in the next few movies) but clearly forges a unique bond with Rey and Oscar Isaac’s Poe Dameron. Following that up, what do we think Poe’s role is going to be in the future? He didn’t have a huge amount to do in The Force Awakens, though he was established as a key character moving forward (guessing surrogate son for General Leia). To be clear, the whole thing is well acted (Adam Driver goes from calm to enraged excellently as Kylo Ren and even Harrison Ford seems to be enjoying himself) and I loved all the characters in different ways.

You get what I’m saying though, right? There’s a lot to talk about with this film. Love it or merely like it, I think we’ll be discussing the characters, the intricacies and the story mechanics for a while. And we’ll probably start doing so in about a week’s time.

Y’know, 2015 was actually a pretty good year for films worth talking about long after they’d finished their theatrical run. The above-mentioned Mad Max, for instance. Wonder what 2016’s gonna be like.

So, yeah, go see Star Wars. Be part of the conversation.

Reviewing the old school: Die Hard (1988)

So I wanted to do a Christmas movie this week since, y’know, Christmas. Took me a little while to decide which one, since there are quite a few of them (many of them actually pretty shit). Then I remembered I hadn’t watched the original Die Hard in a while, and the choice was made. I procured a copy, ordered a curry and sat back to watch what remains one of my favourite action movies ever.

Released in 1988, the film stars Bruce Willis as John MccLane, an NYPD cop visiting his estranged wife at her work Christmas party (in an incomplete skyscraper in Los Angeles). Then a bunch of mostly European thieves masquerading as terrorists take all the party guests hostage. Hijinks ensue.

But you should already know all this, because you should have already seen this movie by now. In all honesty this should be on that 1001 Movies to See Before You Die list if it isn’t already. It’s a classic action film that holds together incredibly well nearly three decades later (holy shit Die Hard turned 27 this year). The fight scenes are appropriately brutal, the set pieces are spectacular and the coincidences never feel as contrived as they do in a lot of other films (including, if I’m being honest, Die Hard 2). The music, as well, is fantastic. It’s something I hadn’t really paid much attention to until I rewatched it this week, but it manages to add tension in the necessary scenes and avoids the unnecessary synth-rock that’s left the soundtracks to so many other movies from the 80s so dated. Best of all it manages to keeps a Christmas theme going throughout the film.

It’s little stuff like that which makes this movie so much fun and the it never treats the audience like an idiot. It talks through particular scenes without feeling like it’s spoon-feeding us through Bruce Willis’ conversations with the Hans Gruber (the villain), Al Powell (his lifeline on the outside) and himself (you’re only crazy if there’s someone around to hear you). It also has a surprisingly high opinion of intelligent characters. John MccLane is not an idiot. He’s good at improvising and working through problems. Alan Rickman’s Hans Gruber is witty and charming, very capable of getting his hands dirty, able to think clearly, rationally and keep an eye on the prize throughout. Idiotic behaviour, however, usually results in the death of that idiot, as we see with Ellis and the FBI agents Johnson and Johnson (no relation). Going in guns blazing doesn’t work, and I wish more action movies would take this lesson to heart.

There are flaws, of course. Holly Gennaro, played by Bonnie Bedelia, has little to do aside from being someone for John MccLane to save. Reginald VelJohnson’s character Sergeant Al Powell tells a story about shooting an unarmed 13 year old boy, meant to garner sympathy for the cops, comes off a little sour given recent events (and probably should have given contemporary events as well). Some guns never seem to run out of bullets until it suddenly ‘matters’. The territorial police commissioner trope, furious about property damage and glass, is a little overdone. As is the henchman who just will not fucking die.

But it’s easy to overlook these flaws. Especially ’cause this movie gave us Alan Rickman. I mean, yeah, Bruce Willis was also a fairly fresh face known for his TV and commercial work propelled to Hollywood fame by this film, but he didn’t play Severus fucking Snape in the Harry Potter films. Without Die Hard Rickman may have remained a relative or complete unknown. And that would have been tragic.

So, yeah, watch this film if you haven’t already. But I expect just about everyone likely to read this already has, so, watch it again I guess? Yeah, watch it again.

Have a Happy Christmas (or Chanukah or Winter Solstice or just a grand public holiday for the many people who don’t celebrate it). Let’s see if I can think of a good New Year movie for next time.

Reviewing the old school: Troy (2004)

Mate, there is so much wrong with this film. I think the worst part is that it could have been so much better if they’d actually used the source material properly. Y’know, with all the gods and magic and not trying to make us sympathise with Paris of Troy. Seriously, you read the Iliad? You know what we’d call that guy in the modern parlance? A date-rapist. Doesn’t matter that he had help from the Goddess of Love instead of roofies, he still fucks Helen without her conscious consent. That ain’t right.

I don’t get why they cut all the supernatural stuff out of the story. It certainly wouldn’t have made the movie any worse, and it certainly could’ve made the story a whole lot more interesting (imagine Sean Bean’s Odysseus having a D and M with Athena, the Goddess of Just War and Wisdom herself, on the beach beside his ship, or perhaps Ares, the God of War, stalking the battlefield with a leering smile at all the carnage). Could’ve been epic. And it’s not like we’d have a problem with the whole ‘Gods and goddesses interfering with the lives of mortals’ thing. I mean, The Mummy and it’s sequel came out five and three years before, respectively, and they did pretty well with the whole weird foreign supernatural thing. Hell, bloody Disney went and covered the same sort of ground as Troy, but including the divine intervention, with its animated film Hercules (and the great spin-off series about his high school years).

Maybe they were worried that if there was too much Deus Ex Machina going on we wouldn’t be able to take Brad Pitt’s flowing golden hair or Eric Bana’s tinted curls seriously. Maybe they were worried that they’d have to make Orlando Bloom the bad guy who dooms his whole city because he just couldn’t keep it in his pants when he met a hot girl who wasn’t interested. Maybe I’m giving the rest of the film too much credit and it would still be shit anyway.

Probably that last one, but the point still stands.

The acting isn’t great. Brad Pitt and Eric Bana ham it up with that weird pseudo-English accent that non-English actors are expected to put on whenever they’re in a historical period earlier than the 1600s. While Brad Pitt never seems to take it seriously (understandably), Bana actually seemed to get better as the film went on and I think he was the right choice for Hector, noble and doomed and the only one with the common sense to say “let’s just give Helen back to the Greeks, Paris will get over it and even if he doesn’t it isn’t worth going to fucking war over.” There’s a lot of great actors in this film, and they do their damned best with the material. Special props to Brian Cox who plays the role of the villainous, prideful, megalomaniacal Agamemnon with a surprising amount of subtlety. Sean Bean’s Odysseus seems woefully underused. I mean, they don’t even kill him. How you can put Sean Bean in your movie and have him play the one character that everyone knows is gonna survive?

The direction and editing are an overlong mess. It’s a two and a half hour long film and not nearly enough of that is filled with the kind of character moments to actually make us care. Some of it just seems painfully unnecessary. Case in point, the film opens with a map of the Aegean. No voice over, no music, no intro credits. Just a fucking map on the screen for like thirty seconds to a minute. Maybe that minute could have been spent fleshing out Ajax a little more, so we actually give a shit when he dies. Patroclus’ character could’ve been fleshed out a little better as well. I think fantastically named director Wolfgang Petersen was trying to channel old classics, the grand Biblicals and biopics like Ben HurSpartacus and Julius Caesar but it just doesn’t work. It’s too slow and not nearly as epic as we’d come to expect by then.

For all its flaws, and it has a lot of flaws (a lot of flaws) I absolutely love this film. My mates and I can basically communicate in movie and television quotes. Simpsons make up the bulk of our source material, with the two Hot Shots! films, the two Airplane (Flying High!) films, Gladiator and Lord of the Rings trilogy filling out the rest of our situational conversations. Troy occupies a special place for us as being the soundtrack for some of our most (or, I suppose, least) memorable nights of drunken debauchery. Someone refusing another beer would be met with a bellow of “Drink you lazy whore! Poles are sobering!” (several of my friends being of Polish origin). Midway through the night you’d likely hear a cry that “The taxi waits for us, I say we make him wait a little longer!” Someone skoling back beer after beer would be cheered on with “The man wants to die!” There was more than one occasion where we’d take Achilles’ speech at the prow of his ship before hitting the beach of Troy and adjust the wording, to fit our school and desired outcome “…my brothers of the schooner… do you know what’s waiting on the other side of the bar? Immortality! Take it, it’s yours!” I watch this film and I’m not thinking about the acting or the plot or the story, the dramatic lines are triggering memories of long nights and close friends.

So yeah. It’s a bloody terrible movie, but I love it dearly. Still, don’t watch it. It’s not worth it and might sour you on a couple of great actors. Read the Iliad and Odyssey instead. They’re classics for a reason.

Worth not stepping on: Thoughts on Ant-Man

Not the easiest thing to do anyway.
Not the easiest thing to do anyway.

One of the most unfair criticisms leveled against Ant-Man (the latest superhero film from the good folk over at Marvel), well before the film was released, was that it was a movie no one asked for or wanted. I recall one re-blog that did the rounds on Tumblr when the titular blogging site had a “Ask the cast of Ant-Man” going on, “How does it feel starring in a movie no one asked for?” or something along those lines, receiving plenty of the internet equivalent of snickers and backslaps at such a brilliant witticism. Personally I found it all a bit fucking disingenuous. I mean, I understand where a lot of these detractors were and are coming from. I too would have really liked to see a MCU film with a female or POC lead a lot sooner than they’re coming (and am bloody stoked for the Captain Marvel and Black Panther films, both due in 2018). And, hell, there has been a pretty large voice crying out for a Black Widow led film (though it seems a lot of that’s cooled off a bit since the arguably disappointing character arc and dialogue in Age of Ultron).

But it feels like this ignores three key points. First, I’m sure there were plenty of people who were overjoyed to see the Ant-Man film. I mean, the guy had to have had some fans (and there must of been a few disgruntled fanboys and girls crying foul when Tony Stark constructed Ultron in the MCU instead of Hank Pym). Second, films are regularly made that aren’t asked for. We frequently don’t know what we want. Shit, I didn’t know how much I wanted a Captain America movie til it was made and looked awesome. In fact we’re normally overjoyed when a film is made that isn’t a sequel (even if it is part of a larger franchise or broadly shared universe, like the Pixar films). Third, why can’t we have both? Marvel studios and their Disney overlords are an enormous empire with plenty of talent to choose from, the millions to spend and an audience that is still eating out of the palm of their hands. Getting a She-Hulk, Spider-Woman or Falcon movie out between AoU and Ant-Man would not have been impossible. Blaming Ant-Man for being made when other possibly great films aren’t just doesn’t sit well, ’cause it is not the film’s fault that they weren’t made.

Mind you, it doesn’t much matter. The film still topped the Friday box office and will likely do very well this weekend. It’s had pretty decent reviews by critics and the public. I also doubt very much the pre-release criticism had anywhere near the attention on social media that the abso-bloody-lutely delightful advertising campaign for the film managed to spark (tiny bilboards? Brilliant!) Most people who’d read this would probably even be surprised that this non-issue came up at all, anywhere. It’s a criticism I wanted to quickly address, however, because the aim was right even if the target was wrong.

I went and saw Ant-Man Friday with one of my housemates. It was good. Sharp dialogue, plenty of physical humour, a creative and satisfying climactic battle. Paul Rudd is funny in his non-threateningly charming way, with a strong emotional range that leads to a light-hearted pay-off. Corey Stoll’s character Darren Cross (eventually the Yellow-Jacket and villain through the entire film) is appropriately menacing and more than a little crazy, with his abandonment issues and desire for Hank Pym’s (Michael Douglas) respect (though I can’t help but feel he’s a bit of a copy-paste of Iron Man 3‘s Aldrich Killian). Evangeline Lilly is competent as Hope van Dyne, Hank Pym’s sort-of estranged daughter. But the father/daughter relationship could have used a lot more fleshing out. There’s supposed to be an enormous rift between the two but we never really see it (both characters coming off pretty one dimensional in the process) and the predictable confession and forgiveness scene doesn’t have any serious punch. Some of the best laughs come from Michael Peña’s role as Luis, the fast-talking, surprisingly-cultured ex-con/still-a-bit-crooked best friend of Ant-Man. He plays the role of comically stupid without ever appearing incapable, incompetent or unlikeable, and that is a true skill (and mark of a well-scripted character).

I can’t bring myself to give the kind of glowing recommendation to see it in the cinema that I gave to Guardians of the Galaxy. It falls into following too-predictable-cliches and  too-recognizable-tropes for that.The training montage, for instance, where the highly competent female supporting lead teaches the bumbling male how to do the role she should be doing. Thankfully it doesn’t go all the way (Hope is still a more competent hero at the end of the film, and Scott is given the role of Ant-Man over her because he’s expendable rather than ‘The Special/Chosen/Prophesied one). It’s a good film though. Funny. Clever. Worth watching. I think the best way to put is that you won’t regret it if you see it in the cinema. At the very least it’ll get a few laughs.

Parental guidance, or why I loved Mad Max: Fury Road

Max and Furiosa, sketch

As always, heads up that there are some spoilers ahead. Y’know what? Go see the movie first. Go see it. It’s brilliant.

There’s a scene around the middle of the Mad Max: Fury Road that I think sums up what makes the film so great. The appropriately named War Rig (a jury-rigged armed, armoured and supercharged oil tanker), carrying (the also appropriately named) Furiosa, Wives, a changed Nux and a less reluctant Max, has become bogged down in the wet soil and sand of what we might assume is a desolate former swamp. Behind them the war lord in charge of the Bullet Farm (an ally of primary antagonist Immortan Joe) and only one in possession of a vehicle with the treads necessary for traversing the treacherous terrain quickly, is closing in. Bullet Farm. It’s a clever name that draws upon an offhanded remark by one of the wives, the Capable I think it was, that one of her relatives used to call bullets “antiseeds. Plant one and watch something die.”

The sun set some time before, casting the world in a blue filter that marks a striking contrast against the reds and yellows of the wasteland during the daytime and forcing the (again, appropriately named) Bullet Farmer to probe the darkness with a bright white spotlight (and randomly directed shots from his enormous arsenal). Planning to slow down the progress of their pursuer Max kneels down with a scoped rifle, takes aim at the spotlight, fires, misses. Again, he takes aim, fires, misses. Is informed that he only has two shots left for that rifle. For a third time, he takes aim, fires. For a third time he misses. One shot left.

Before he can take it, before he can hit or miss, Furiosa comes up behind him. Max glances at her, back down the scope, then hands her the rifle. We, the audience, already know she’s a brilliant shot with this weapon. We saw her using it to pluck motorcyclists out of the air like clay pigeons as they jumped over the War Rig, then use it to pick off an approaching straggler well in the distance. What makes this scene something special, why it is such a fantastic demonstration of the evolved relationship between the characters and their combined strength is that Max doesn’t get up. He remains kneeling, allowing Furiosa to rest the stock of the rifle on his shoulder as she takes aim at the approaching spotlight. He doesn’t need to be told, he just does, and while he’s obviously not entirely pleased by the thought of having a gun fire right next to his ear, when Furiosa says “Don’t breath,” he doesn’t. She pulls the trigger. The spotlight shatters into the face of the Bullet Farmer. The ambient noise of the film is replaced by the high-pitched whine of Max’s dying ear cells (there’s a reason you might not be happy about someone firing a gun right next to your ear). He doesn’t complain, just gives his head a shake.

A lesser character in a lesser film, with a lesser writer or director, would have felt the need for their male title to try and reassert some dominance and masculinity after being used as a prop by the female lead. Maybe with an offhanded remark about how he “was just about to do that” himself, maybe claim that some blunt force trauma to his head which occurred in an earlier fight (while saving the lady’s arse, of course) had thrown off his aim. Not Max though, and not Fury Road. He doesn’t say much at all. Just gets up and joins the others in getting the War Rig moving again. Cause we’re not watching Max’s story, we’re watching Furiosa’s story from Max’s perspective. It is Furiosa’s ambition, strength and desire that propel the story forward and drives the action. Max’s role is to support her in this, keep her moving forward, and at the end point her in the right direction to achieve those ambitions.

It reminded me of my parents. The supporting relationship, I mean, not the gun play. Both of them have their own plans, dreams and ambitions. When one needs to do something to achieve their goals, the other is there to provide the moral and physical support necessary to do it. Of course a big part of those ambitions was raising me and my siblings right. Making sure we achieve what we want to achieve.

The movie is a master-class in ‘show, don’t tell‘ and it’s what makes this film such an absolute joy of stoic characters and insane action. One of those important things is the relationship between Max and Furiosa. It is Furiosa’s desires and ambitions that are ultimately achieved, but I believe she could not have achieved them without Max’s help. Right here I want to be very clear that this is not a statement against Furiosa. Some would call her the best female action hero since Ripley in Alien and Aliens. I would call her better. She’s smart, fierce and amazingly capable. As I said, she drives the action, the plot and the motivations of the other characters. Furiosa is the knight errant rescuing the princesses from the tower, but Max is her squire. An important part of a more important character’s story, providing an extra pair of hands to maintain their steed, an extra fighter when she’s driving, a driver when she’s fighting, the hardened reinforcement to keep moving forward when she desperately wants to turn around but knows it would be folly (you know the scene if you’ve seen the film… “under the wheels”) and in the very end the herald announcing the end of her quest and displaying the trophy of her victory. In return for helping the hero on her journey Max receives the things he lacked travelling alone through the wasteland. Respect. Companionship. Hope. A cause worth fighting for beyond survival. Identity. Someone to witness who he was, who’d also understand what he was. Empathy. The Wives.

Fuckin’ hell, I cannot stress just how important the wives are to both Furiosa and Max. I’d call those two each other’s moral compasses, but it is the Wives who are the north that both end up trying to reach. A few commentators and reviews of Furiosa have missed the fact that in her first face-to-face meetings with both Max and Nux she tries to put them both down. Unsurprising, considering the context in which she meets them (threatening her and the women she is protecting with a shotgun and sneaking through the Rig to kill her, respectively). In both cases, it is the Wives that influence her actions during and afterward. It is the fact that Max, a feral dog after years in the wasteland with only his hallucinations for company, only bares his teeth (and nicks their ride, admittedly) even after Furiosa presses that shotgun against his head and pulls the trigger. He doesn’t harm the girls beyond what could easily be argued was necessary for his own survival, and so she sees the potential in trusting him to protect the Wives in the next scene. Between this she is ready to gut Nux but the Wives stop her. They call him a confused boy and his death as unnecessary. After this, it is the empathy of one of these wives that sees a scared, lonely and confused Nux (who knows he cannot possibly rejoin the society that was his whole identity, his whole existence) change sides and fight to protect the women who showed him compassion. In the end he does not desire to ride through Valhalla, shiny and chrome, he wants to be remembered by someone who genuinely cared about him.

As for Max, well, by the end of the movie he may not be sane but his experience with the Wives has reacquainted him with a sense of justice that he thought was dead at the beginning of the story. He sees Furiosa, who wants to do more than protect them, and grows from that. She wants to give the girls a chance to grow, live, make their own decisions, be more than just property, live up to their true potential. Is it Maternalism? Maybe. Probably. It certainly contrasts pretty sharply against the toxic paternalism and patriarchy of Immortan Joe and his hyper-masculine death cult. But isn’t that what all good parents want regardless of gender? For their children to live, thrive, and reach their own potential? To be happy? I bloody think so.

That’s what I think this movie is about. Two parents helping, learning from and supporting each other to give their adopted children a chance that they never had (or in Max’s case, was never able to give to his biological child… if we assume this is the Max from the original). A victory of Parentalism over Paternalism and Patriarchy. That is wonderful.

It also has a guy playing a flame-throwing guitar on the back of a giant doof wagon. That is also wonderful.

Go see Mad Max: Fury Road. It is wonderful.